You can buy pot legally in New Jersey this week, but don't bring it home to Pa.

Tony Rhodin
The Express-Times (TNS)

Easton-based defense attorney Gary Asteak has advice for any Pennsylvania resident who has an inkling about buying marijuana in New Jersey once recreational sales begin on Thursday.

Make a doctor’s appointment instead. Try to get your medical marijuana card and treat yourself legally at a dispensary.

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Because the two negative outcomes for Jersey pot shoppers upon returning to Pennsylvania — possession of a small amount of marijuana and driving while intoxicated — can be real headaches in the local justice system, the longtime attorney said ahead of Thursday’s planned opening of recreational marijuana sales in New Jersey at several dispensaries, including The Apothecarium Dispensary at 55 S. Main St. in Phillipsburg.

He’s not looking for more business but figures he’ll get more since possession of 30 grams or less remains a misdemeanor in Pennsylvania, punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.

And driving under the influence of marijuana is a top tier offense — similar to a third tier driving under the influence of alcohol offense that involves a blood alcohol content of 0.16 or higher and a minimum of 72 hours in jail, Asteak said. If your blood alcohol is 0.09, it is a first tier offense, with lesser penalties, he added.

So, why take the chance, he asked.

And, if you do, he advises you to remember that in such interactions with police, “sometimes your right to remain silent is sacred. … Many times folks kind of turn yourself in. … Many people when questioned will say ‘yeah, I smoked.’”

Also, you can’t be pulled over just for leaving New Jersey.

“Keep in mind, the police can’t stop you unless they have reasonable suspicion that you are committing a crime or violating the vehicle code,” Asteak said.

With the possible legalization of recreational use on the radar, large marijuana companies are looking at a $22.7 billion national market by 2023. (Dreamstime/TNS)

But sometimes things happen that are beyond your control. In other words, do you feel lucky?

You don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you smoke up on the Jersey side and then someone crashes into your car on the Pennsylvania side of the bridge, Asteak told The other driver is at fault but suddenly you are a criminal, Asteak said.

“Who gets busted?” Asteak asked. “Me, not the little old lady” who crashed into you.

Asteak is hoping for what he called more enlightened days in the Keystone State with marijuana being legalized or at least lowered to a summary offense, similar to a parking ticket.

But, at the moment, he said, it’s a controlled substance.

“I’d caution folks to be extremely careful,” he said about buying in Phillipsburg and driving back to Easton. “It’s still illegal to possess marijuana in small amounts” on the west side of the bridges.

Will Easton police be following drivers to New Jersey, camping out near the Phillipsburg dispensary, then following pot shoppers back to Pennsylvania and pulling them over for running a stop sign? Asteak said there is history of Pennsylvania liquor control agents doing just that back in the day to catch restaurant owners trying to pay a lower tax on wine bought in the Garden State.

But Easton police Chief Carl Scalzo said his officers won’t be doing any of that.

In fact, they’ll be doing nothing differently at all.

“We’re concerned with people driving while impaired,” Scalzo said. “We will follow the same procedure as any other drunken driving arrest.”

Marijuana, for the most part, isn’t the biggest concern when it comes to illegal drugs in the Easton community, Scalzo said.

Easton’s worry has always been violence.

“If you have a drug distribution problem, you have a violence problem,” Scalzo said. “That’s what we are really targeting. We’ve worked really hard as a department to rid this city of violent crime. We’ve targeted what’s bringing in the violence.”

The people who will cross the Delaware River to buy weed likely have the money to do so, Scalzo said. It’s likely cheaper to buy through the illegal trade, so many people in Easton probably won’t check out the new Phillipsburg site, Scalzo said.

But it comes back to smoking and driving.

“Our main goal is to keep people safe,” Scalzo said. “People smoking marijuana shouldn’t be driving a vehicle. … I hope people who partake do follow the rules.”

Easton police average fewer than 30 possession of small amounts of marijuana cases per year, the department said a year ago.

“People talk about it — they have the impression we’re arresting millions of people per year” on the lesser marijuana charge, Scalzo said. “But it’s not an issue.”

Slate Belt Regional police Chief Jonathan Hoadley isn’t looking to confiscate more marijuana.

“It really smells up the evidence room” and the odor gives the chief a headache, he said.

But the department still does its share of arrests for possession of a small amount, he said. Not as much as years ago, but it’s still “a fair amount,” he said.

A lot of it involves DUI crashes, where marijuana is what leads to the impairment, he said.

But, oftentimes, when the possession isn’t a key to the incident, officers just destroy the drug and charge on the other offense — such as driving while intoxicated, he said.

“We try to work with people,” he said.

He figures some folks will drive over to New Jersey to buy legal marijuana and then bring it back into his department’s jurisdiction.

He hasn’t gotten much guidance from the Northampton County District Attorney’s Office or the state police chiefs association, he said.

But marijuana remains illegal in this state, as does driving while intoxicated, Hoadley said.

“Nothing has changed,” he said.

Pennsylvania State Police, who patrol the Delaware River bridges, declined to comment on their enforcement efforts.

But one thing the state police would speak to was if troopers could go into New Jersey and, like New Jersey police are allowed, smoke legal marijuana.

“Troopers are subject to drug testing, and that includes marijuana,” a spokesperson said by email. “So, no, they are not allowed per department regulation.”

The same is true with Easton and Slate Belt personnel, their chiefs said.

Both departments use random drug tests.

“I’ve had officers ask me in the past if Pennsylvania legalized marijuana would they be allowed to use it,” Hoadley said. “My answer is always no. … We have zero tolerance for any drug use.”

Even for the one Slate Belt officer who lives in New Jersey, Hoadley said.

The slightest impairment of an officer — and marijuana stays in the blood longer than alcohol — puts the entire department at risk, he said.

Scalzo said no matter what the law is in New Jersey, Easton police have their own standards to respect.

“We have a code of conduct” that explains what an officer can and cannot do, Scalzo said. “Obviously utilization of drugs is not acceptable here.”

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