By ERIN ROLL
Officials are cautioning that although New Jersey legalized recreational marijuana on Nov. 3, users shouldn’t light up just yet.
The law will not officially take effect until Jan. 1, and in the meantime, recreational marijuana use remains illegal in the state.
“Nevertheless, some may misinterpret or misunderstand the consequences of the amendment and possess or use marijuana right away, assuming that it is lawful,” the state Attorney General’s Office announced.
“Given this, law enforcement officers and prosecutors are reminded of their broad discretion when handling low-level marijuana offenses and are encouraged to exercise it consistent with existing guidance from this office.”
The Montclair Police Department has not seen an increase in marijuana incidents since the election, said Lt. Ronald Redmond.
The governor’s office is in the process of assembling a task force on the legalization.
The ballot measure amends the state constitution to allow adults to possess, purchase and consume. But lawmakers are now charged with creating laws regulating recreational use.
The regulations will likely mimic those on cigarettes and alcohol, which limit sales to people 21 years of age or older. Marijuana likely will be sold through dispensaries with weight limits per purchase. Public consumption will be illegal, and motorists who use it could be subject to DUI charges.
Montclair Police Chief Todd Conforti said the department was still awaiting further guidance from the Attorney General’s Office on what the public question would mean for the department’s enforcement and outreach efforts.
Last week, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal advised that police will not immediately stop arresting people on possession charges, but said that further guidance on changes is forthcoming.
Advocates have noted that drug possession arrests and charges disproportionately involve people of color.
Montclair is home to one medical marijuana dispensary: ASCEND, formerly known as the Greenleaf Compassion Center, on Bloomfield Avenue. It was among the first medical dispensaries to open in New Jersey after medical marijuana was approved in the state in 2012.
ASCEND representatives did not immediately return a request for comment on how their business might change with the sale of recreational marijuana.
A second dispensary for Montclair was proposed in 2019 by the Colorado-based company Lightshade, whose partners include entrepreneur Rohan Marley, one of the sons of musician Bob Marley.
Stu Zakim, chair of the Marijuana Business Association, said he was overjoyed that the question had not only passed, but passed by a wide margin.
He estimated, however, that it will be at least 18 months before the first legal cannabis store opens. But New Jersey is still ahead of other states in that it already has the infrastructure for growing and processing marijuana for legal medical use.
Montclair is prepared to enforce driving under the influence laws when it comes to marijuana. In 2018, MPD hired a drug recognition officer. Since drug testing done through urine analysis takes days, the officer is called in immediately following an arrest or to scenes of accidents to determine if the driver is under the influence of drugs such as opioids, inhalants, PCP, narcotics, hallucinates or marijuana.
Through a 12-step process testing eye reflexes, attention span, blood pressure, heart rate and more, the officer is able to give a report on the driver’s condition and identify the category or categories of drugs causing the impairment.
There are challenges ahead, including convincing towns that having a cannabis dispensary will be beneficial, Zakim said. At least 70 towns have already passed legislation barring dispensaries from setting up business.
A plus for those towns that have dispensaries and for the state overall, Zakim said, is that once legal cannabis establishments are up and running, they will draw visitors from out of state. This in turn will help boost New Jersey’s economy, which has taken a heavy hit from the pandemic, he said.
“I just think this is a godsend,” Zakim said.
Jaimie Julia Winters contributed to this article.