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OC Town Hall Aims to Educate Public on New Weed Laws

Bicyclists ride along Ocean City Boardwalk in this file photo.

By Camille Sailer

OCEAN CITY – Mayor Jay Gillian May 22 hosted a town hall meeting, at the Ocean City Tabernacle, to inform people about New Jersey’s new laws legalizing recreational marijuana use (https://bit.ly/3hPPI52). Police Chief Jay Prettyman and members of Ocean City Council also attended. 

“We are anticipating an exceptionally busy summer in Ocean City, as the recovery from the Covid pandemic continues and people are anxious to return to normal, but now that New Jersey has eliminated sanctions for underage possession and use of marijuana and alcohol, the summer could feel very different,” Gillian stated.  

“I’m joined here today by Chief Prettyman because there are strict guidelines on how the new laws can be enforced, and we’ll need the entire community’s support and help this summer to alert us to violations as they are happening, so we have another safe and enjoyable summer,” he continued.  

Gillian outlined the topics to be addressed, including the laws themselves; juvenile justice reform, which is changing what is permissible by the police in their arrest and search activities; police liability, which, according to Gillian, has become more of a risk since “state lawmakers have criminalized the good-faith actions of police who may make honest mistakes by trying to investigate and comply with the new law;” and the tools the city plans to use this summer, including enforcement of existing disorderly conduct and noise ordinances and heightened police presence throughout the island, including more seasonal officers. 

Prettyman’s message was clear: Police officers interacting with juvenile offenders smoking marijuana or drinking alcohol on Ocean City’s beach, Boardwalk or other parts of town will need to factor in the legal restraints from the state.  

“Police may be the ones at risk of getting arrested, not the offenders,” said Prettyman. “You will rarely, if ever, see a juvenile charged with a complaint. We know these changes in regulation will have an impact on our town.” 

In the past, as Prettyman explained, Ocean City police would usually take underage offenders back to the police station and call their parents to pick them up.  

Compounding the complexity of their jobs, officers statewide now might face arrest for violating an individual’s civil rights if they do not adhere to the provisions of the new marijuana laws.  

For example, police will not have sufficient probable cause to search someone if they simply detect the smell of marijuana or alcohol. The person would have to have the cannabis or alcohol in plain sight for police action. 

Prettyman continued with his presentation by noting that for underage offenders, police might, in the past, issue a written warning or notify their parents that they were using marijuana or drinking alcohol.  

However, now, if juveniles refuse to give their names to police, the officers would be virtually powerless to do anything. The juveniles could simply walk away unless they were being investigated for a more serious crime other than smoking pot or drinking alcohol. 

As background to the dilemma, recreational marijuana is now legal for adult (21 and older) consumption, but not in public places, such as the Boardwalk.  

Gillian stated that the council approved a new ordinance in April, like many municipalities, that includes a ban on marijuana sales. He added that he is concerned the town’s reputation as “America’s Greatest Family Resort” will be eroded if marijuana is sold on the island and pot is smoked where tourists congregate, including the Boardwalk or beaches 

During their presentations and in replies to public feedback, both Gillian and Prettyman gave their assurances that the city and police department will do all in their power while abiding by state law to prevent marijuana and alcohol from being consumed in public. 

Efforts, according to Gillian, will include educating the public instead of police interventions and engaging both parents and teens to prevent trouble before it happens.  

The mayor noted the city’s partnership with a coalition of Ocean City mothers for a bike safety event May 12 that promoted good relations between the police department and local teenagers (https://bit.ly/2T68XNo). The safety event was a response to groups of rowdy teens riding their bikes through town and on the Boardwalk.  

This summer, the police department’s strategy, per Prettyman, will include more officers deployed on the Boardwalk. The police department is also hiring nearly 25% more seasonal officers this year than it normally does, Prettyman said.  

In addition, the mayor agreed for the city to provide funding to buy body cameras for all police officers and install new security cameras. This new equipment will allow officers to video their encounters with juveniles and other people, Prettyman said. 

After the formal presentations, the 100 or so participants had the opportunity to ask questions, which centered on their distaste for the new law.  

Universally, the audience expressed support for the police department, while criticizing the state’s new marijuana laws. 

To contact Camille Sailer, email csailer@cmcherald.com. 

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