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Jersey Shore Towns Say State's Cannabis Law Handcuffs Police, Emboldens Teens

Some say decriminalizing marijuana use is having an unintended effect.

A police officer in a dune vehicle patrols the beach in Seaside Heights, N.J., on Thursday, June 29, 2023.
A police officer in a dune vehicle patrols the beach in Seaside Heights, N.J., on Thursday, June 29, 2023.
AP Photo/Wayne Parry

OCEAN CITY, N.J. (AP) — It's summer on the Jersey Shore. For many young people, that means one thing: Party time!

But officials and residents of several beachside towns say New Jersey's criminal justice reforms in recent years — such as decriminalizing marijuana use — are having an unintended effect, emboldening large groups of teenagers to run amok on beaches and boardwalks, knowing there's little chance they'll get in trouble for it.

Now, some lawmakers are trying to walk back parts of those laws, which also involve alcohol use and possession. The laws were designed to keep more juveniles out of the court system, and imposed a number of restrictions on police officers' interactions with them.

"You don't want to see a kid with a record that will last the rest of his life, but you can't let them believe they can do anything they want," said Mayor Anthony Vaz of Seaside Heights. "That's unacceptable."

During Memorial Day weekend, police and media outlets reported episodes of underage drinking, drug use, fights and assaults in Ocean City and Seaside Heights — home to the infamous MTV series "Jersey Shore" in which a bunch of summer renters generally raised hell in town.

Although teens have been drinking and smoking marijuana at the Jersey Shore for generations, long before the state altered its laws, some elected officials and residents say the situation has drastically worsened in the last two years.

Over Memorial Day, teens were hanging from a motel balcony in Seaside Heights and climbing onto the roof of another motel. In Ocean City, eight teens drank themselves unconscious on the boardwalk and had to be hospitalized. Restroom attendants were assaulted and spit on by youths. Several teens were carrying knives and one had a replica gun that police say looked just like the real thing.

"Enough is enough," Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian wrote in a message to residents on the city's website. "It's become clear over the past two summers that these crowds will only grow larger and unrulier unless something changes."

Holly Kisby, an Ocean City resident who has worked on the boardwalk for over 30 years, said teens were drinking, smoking marijuana, setting off fireworks into the crowd, fighting, destroying property and stealing from stores, among other things.

"You're getting well more than 300 kids, if I had to guess, 700-plus a few nights, all acting wild," she said. "Like a bad house party without the house. This is by far the worst it's ever been."

Ocean City Police Chief Jay Prettyman said most of the troublemakers were drinking underage, but added that New Jersey's recently adopted cannabis law says that someone under the age of 21 cannot consent to a police search for marijuana or alcohol.

Previously, teens caught with those things could be arrested. Now, they get a warning, or get taken to police headquarters for a parent or guardian to pick them up except in the most serious situations.

Word spread fast among teens, who know they don't have to give officers their names as long as they don't walk away from the officer during questioning. The kids even know that officers themselves could face charges if they violate the rights of teens in these circumstances.

The New Jersey Attorney General's Office did not respond to requests for comment. The American Civil Liberties Union supported the changes, saying teens should be offered alternatives to criminal prosecution where possible.

Above the Seaside Heights boardwalk Thursday, a small plane towed a banner asking, "Do you know the signs of alcohol poisoning?" Sitting on a bench with friends, 22-year-old Santiago Caceres said police should not be able to search people for illicit substances.

"People of color are way more likely to be searched than white people," he said. "People are in jail because of this."

"A lot of underage people make a dumb mistake and they get a criminal record," ruining the rest of their life, added his friend Angel Aguero, 23. Both had come down to the beach from West New York, a town in New Jersey just across from Manhattan.

Nick DiMattina, a 15-year-old from Beachwood, New Jersey, said police should be allowed to conduct searches of underage people like himself. He learned of the change in the law on TikTok.

"If kids are allowed to do it and don't get searched, then they're going to do it," said DiMattina, who said he does not drink or use cannabis.

Several lawmakers from both parties have introduced bills reinstating fines for underage possession of alcohol and marijuana, and allowing police officers to search teens observed to be in possession of the items.

Prettyman, the Ocean City police chief, said officers throughout the state are hesitant to engage teens regarding alcohol or marijuana for fear of being charged themselves with a third-degree crime of depriving the teens of their rights. He said bills removing that provision, and reinstating penalties for underage possession and consumption of alcohol and pot, will help undo some of the excesses of the current law.

Sen. Michael Testa, a Republican, was shocked by the "lawlessness" on the Jersey Shore over Memorial Day weekend. He's sponsoring a package of bills including one that would remove the threat of charges against police officers acting in good faith, and another allowing towns to designate alcohol and marijuana-free zones.

New Jersey is not alone in reforming its laws to try to keep more juveniles out of the criminal justice system. Several Maryland law enforcement officers say that state's juvenile reforms have made it harder to question and investigate teens suspected of committing crimes, although the state's Department of Juvenile Services says the laws are having a positive effect.

Seaside Heights' mayor said he heard kids as young as 13 mouthing off to police officers, with impunity.

"A few of them actually said, 'You can't do anything to me,'" Vaz said. "I heard it with my own ears."

The town is considering raising the minimum age to rent a motel room from 18 to 21 if disturbances continue.

In the aftermath of its own unruly weekend, Ocean City acted quickly to regain control of its beach and boardwalk, closing access to the beach at 8 p.m. and banning backpacks on the boardwalk after that hour; adopting an earlier curfew, and closing public restrooms at 10 p.m. Seaside Heights adopted similar measures, including one that allows officials to shut down the beach and boardwalk if things get out of hand, and other shore towns have enacted curfews and alcohol bans.