New Jersey is dealing with an important issue right now that is going to soon confront many other states.
As states legalize substances, as New Jersey legalized cannabis use late last year, what are the practical effects of legalization? New Jersey is finding that one of the most critical issues is the health and safety of people on the roads. As more people use cannabis legally, some are making the same poor decisions that some people who drink have historically made - they are then getting into their vehicles and driving.
With studies showing that states that legalize the use of cannabis experience an increase in car accidents, New Jersey is approaching this issue at the perfect time. One year into legalization, many people in the state can reflect on the positive changes to their lives brought about by the new law, while others have seen the downsides, which include people on the road illegally driving while legally high.
An August special master’s report of findings of facts and conclusions of law in the case of New Jersey v, Olenowski highlights one of the important considerations for police trying to keep New Jersey roads safe from people driving under the influence of drugs.
The key issue the special master examined is whether police officers who have special training in identifying whether a driver has been impaired by using drugs should have their testimony admitted as part of a criminal trial.
The special master, who is a retired Appellate Division judge, argued in his August report to the New Jersey Supreme Court that this type of testimony should be valid.
The first reaction of many people in New Jersey and other states with similar drug legalization policies would react that this drug-recognition expert protocol is a good thing, something that can help keep the roads safe and penalize impaired drivers.
But others are justifiably concerned that the special master’s report could mean that this type of expert testimony could be admitted without challenge into criminal trials for impaired driving by the New Jersey Supreme Court.
David Gelman, a New Jersey criminal defense lawyer, argues that the Supreme Court needs to tread very carefully with this issue:
“Allowing the testimony of police officers trained as drug recognition experts to be admitted unchallenged in an impaired-driving trial could put innocent drivers in jeopardy without the ability to challenge the observations, methods, or validity of a given case.”
It’s easy to see how this issue extends far beyond simply New Jersey and cannabis. A movement in the California legislature to decriminalize certain psychedelic drugs had its trip temporarily ended last month when legislators conceded that they didn’t have enough support to make this happen in 2022. They’ll be back as a broader force in the legislature in 2023 with many experts expecting some sort of bill to inch towards certain psychedelics becoming legal. If New Jersey is dealing with these societal and judicial issues by having legalized the use of cannabis, imagine California with legalized psychedelics, and some of the most traveled roads highways in the nation.
As to this issue, New Jersey’s Supreme Court is expected to conduct hearings and invite briefings before making a decision on the admissibility of this type of evidence, so the resolution won’t be as fast as many would like. But this is the perfect example of a state needing more time to grapple with a public safety issue as it tries to balance multiple priorities, here accuracy, fairness, and the need to act to keep drivers safe.
About Aron Solomon
A Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer, Aron Solomon, JD, is the Chief Legal Analyst for Esquire Digital and 24-7 Abogados. He has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania, and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world. Aron has been featured in Forbes, CBS News, CNBC, USA Today, ESPN, TechCrunch, The Hill, BuzzFeed, Fortune, Venture Beat, The Independent, Fortune China, Yahoo!, ABA Journal, Law.com, The Boston Globe, NewsBreak, and many other leading publications.