Drug Possession Laws in New Jersey

Drug possession in NJ can result in jail time. What are some of the common sentences? This article reviews New Jersey’s legal process, penalties, and what you can do when you’re caught with a controlled substances in your possession.

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ARTICLE OVERVIEW: Have you been caught in possession of drugs in the state of New Jersey? Here, we review potential penalties and how voluntary participation in a drug court can help.


Types of Drug Possession in NJ

When it comes down to it, New Jersey has some very strict laws against drug possession. The state legislature has divided types of drug possession into four distinct categories. The laws are described in N.J.S.A. 2C: 35-10A, N.J.S.A. 2C: 35-10, and N.J.S.A. 2C: 36-2. [1-4]

The four types of drug possession include:

TYPE 1: Possession of Less than 50 Grams of Marijuana

Out the drug charges mentioned on this list, marijuana has some of the most relaxed laws due to its decriminalization within the state of New Jersey. Possessing personal amounts of marijuana typically leads to a misdemeanor charge with minor fines and possible jail time. However, if you’re caught with MORE than 50 grams of marijuana, you’re automatically charged with a fourth-degree criminal offense.

TYPE 2: Possession of Narcotics or Controlled Dangerous Substances

Narcotics or controlled dangerous substances include anything from heroin to cocaine to methamphetamine to hallucinogens such as acid and ecstasy. This type of drug possession charge is much more serious. If you’re caught in possession of a controlled substance in NJ, drug rehabilitation and/or education programs will be required.

TYPE 3: Possession of Drug Paraphernalia

Being in possession of drug paraphernalia is also against the law in the Garden State. You’ll most likely be charged solely with a misdemeanor and the least amount of fines and jail time. It should be noted, it’s unusual for someone to be caught with drug paraphernalia only. More often than not, drug paraphernalia is attached to other charges, as people are often caught with paraphernalia and drugs at the same time.

TYPE 4: Simple Possession of Unauthorized Prescription Drugs

If you are in possession of Rx drugs without a doctor’s authorized, written prescription in your name, you’ll be charged with a third-degree indictable offense. The severity of this charge is quite serious, as the nation is currently affected by record high reports of overdose and death as the result of Rx painkillers. So, if you’re caught with a prescription drug that is not your own, expect harsh penalties.

The Legal Process in New Jersey

What can you expect to happen when you’re caught with drug possession in the Garden State? According to the New Jersey Courts, the criminal justice process should follow a specific protocol. [5] This protocol includes the following steps:

STEP 1: First Appearance in Court.

Within 48 hours of being arrested, you can expect to have to make your first appearance in court where you’ll be placed before a judge and given your set of conditions or pretrial release, if you are eligible. If you don’ show up to your first appearance, a warrant will be written for your arrest.

Upon your first appearance, you will be advised to your right to counsel. In other words, your right to have an attorney represent you. If you cannot afford an attorney, you will be assigned one.

STEP 2: Setting Bail.

Depending on your case, you may qualify for bail. If bail is made, you’ll be released on the condition that you pay the bail amount until your charges in the complaint are resolved. This doesn’t mean you’ve gotten out of the court system yet. You will still have mandatory dates to appear and requirements to your bail.

STEP 3: Examining the Evidence to Establish Burden of Proof.

After your first appearance in court, a prosecutor will make the determination of whether or not they want to continue to pursue your case. There are a number of factors that play into this including eyewitnesses, police reports, and your criminal record. Under New Jersey’s law, a prosecutor must have established the following elements in order to properly convict you. Without these elements, the court can dismiss a case; judges must first consider whether there is enough evidence against you to be penalized for drug possession before bringing a case to trial.

a. Legality. The prosecutor must produce evidence that what was in your possession at the time of your arrest was, in fact, illegal and a controlled substance under New Jersey law.

b. Knowledge. The prosecutor must demonstrate that you knew about the illegal nature of the controlled substance and you were aware of its presence.

c. Control. The prosecutor must show that you were in full control over the controlled substance. This includes both its presence and its location.

STEP 4: Substance Abuse Evaluation.

In accordance with the laws set up for a drug possession charge, you will need to go through a substance abuse evaluation. The purpose of this is to define the nature of your involvement with drugs and whether or not you qualify for drug treatment.

STEP 5: Trial and Sentencing.

If your case has not been downgraded, diverted, or dismissed, then you’ll be placed before a grand jury in a trial. The jury will decide your sentence and penalty. This is the court date we discussed earlier. Upon the conclusion of the trial, you will know how your case will resolve.


In New Jersey, you can expect harsh sentencing for drug use. Most sentences are divided into different degrees. For example, a third-degree offense is less penalized than a first-degree offense.

When it comes to drug possession, any drug possession has the potential to result in at least some jail time. However, you have less of a chance at serious jail time if you’re charged with a misdemeanor. Still, even if you are charged with a felony offense, you may receive alternative sentencing. See below for more detail.

Misdemeanor Possession

A misdemeanor charge of drug possession in NJ is less serious than a felony crime and, with that, comes with less strict penalties. In New Jersey, a misdemeanor is considered a fourth-degree crime.
You may be charged with a fourth-degree crime for either a personal amount of weed or having solely drug paraphernalia. You will also receive this charge for a DUI, or driving under the influence of a drug.

Typical penalties for misdemeanor drug possession in New Jersey include:

  • A fine of up to $10,000
  • License suspension
  • Potential community service
  • Probation
  • Up to 18 months time in a local jail or state prison

Felony Possession

Felonies are much more serious offenses than misdemeanors and, therefore, result in much more serious penalties. What these penalties are will depend on the circumstances of your crime. For example, if you’re simply caught with a personal amount of cocaine in your possession, you won’t be charged as seriously as someone caught with enough cocaine to be trafficking.

In New Jersey, a felony is the result of either a third-degree, second-degree, and first-degree crime. The following are the consequences for each degree of drug possession crime.

3rd Degree Drug Possession Crime:

  • 3 to 5 years in state prison.
  • A fine of up to $15,000.

2nd Degree Drug Possession Crime:

  • 5 to 10 years in prison.
  • A fine of up to $150,000.

1st Degree Drug Possession Crime::

  • 10 years to life in prison.
  • A fine of up to $200,000.

Other Penalties

Besides jail or prison time and fines, both misdemeanor and felony convictions can also result in other penalties. These penalties vary from case to case. A judge may order that one person receive more penalties than another if his/her crime is more serious. The duration of these penalties also varies

Other penalties or drug possession in New Jersey include:

  • Inability to qualify for certain types of college scholarship or financial aid.
  • Inability to qualify for public housing.
  • Inability to obtain certain employment.
  • Inability to obtain certain types of government employment.
  • Inability to receive a state license or certification.
  • Probation.
  • Suspension of a driving license.

Alternative Sentencing

In New Jersey, courts might make a few legal accommodations…especially for first time offenders. The nature of these accommodations will ultimately depend on your personal needs and the circumstances of your case. Ultimately, alternative sentences can and should serve as a wake up call to you. You will not be subject to high fines or put behind bars. The idea is that you learn from your mistake…and move on.

Still, most of these sentencing alternatives in New Jersey are permitted at the discretion of the presiding judge. This judge who will base her/his decision on the surrounding circumstances. Moreover, many people are allowed one type of alternative sentence before they receive a harsher penalty.

The following are a few alternative sentences for drug possession in the state. You’ll want to talk to your lawyer about these as they will know what’s best for your circumstance. Furthermore, each of these legal actions will occur at different points of the legal process.

OPTION1: Pretrial Diversion.

You may want to request a Pretrial Diversion. This is a program run by the State Attorney’s Office. Only those who are first-time offenders who have committed a non-violent crime will be considered eligible. This program includes probation in the sense that you’ll have to report to a supervising officer on a monthly basis and take random drug tests when asked. Furthermore, you may be asked to complete community service. As long as you refrain from further criminal activity, your drug possession charges will be dropped upon completion.

OPTION 2: Pretrial Intervention.

Another request you can make is for a Pretrial Intervention. Those with less clean of a record will benefit from this. Again, like a Pretrial Diversion, it’s similar to probation in the sense that you’ll need to take random drug tests. However, instead of reporting to a supervising officer on a monthly basis, you’ll have to report to the court. Furthermore, you may be placed into a drug treatment facility, depending on the court’s orders. As long as you refrain from further criminal activity, your drug possession charges will be dropped upon completion.

OPTION 3: Motion to Suppress.

You might also be eligible to request a Motion to Suppress. The purpose of this is to hold back the final resolution of your case if the evidence brought before the court was obtained through illegal manners. In cases of drug possession, this is common, as many police officers go based off their hunches to retrieve the evidence. Talk to your attorney about what happened on the day of your arrest to determine if a Motion to Suppress is the right move to make.

OPTION 4: Submitting a Plea.

Some people may feel it’s necessary to avoid drug treatment. If you’re one of these people, you have the ability to submit a plea. If this goes through, you may be sentenced to minimal probation which won’t require drug testing nor treatment. Again, this option requires legal representation and advice.

OPTION 5: Conditional Discharge.

This is an alternative sentencing option for people charged with simple possession of marijuana in New Jersey. The program allows you to undergo supervisory addiction treatment and stay out of jail. Still, you’ll be placed on probation for a year. If you complete the year without any infractions, your criminal conviction will be expunged from your record. However, you must adhere to all court obligations in order to continue with the program. Otherwise, you risk being re-sentenced for the offense.

Drug Courts in New Jersey

In New Jersey, you might be eligible for trial via a Drug Court. These are specialized courts where traditional punishment is replaced with rehabilitation. Instead of incarceration, for example, you’ll be asked to attend a drug treatment facility and be required to complete a program. The goal is to help you better your own life and, in turn, help the community around you.

Not everyone is eligible to enter the New Jersey’s Drug Court system. The courts are mainly substance
abusing adult defendants who have undergone a legal review and clinical assessment by drug court team members. For example, if you have a previous convictions or a pending charges for a violent offense….you might not be able to go through the NJ drug courts. Other eligibility criteria and exclusions apply. For additional information, contact the drug court in your area for details. [5]

If you’re interested in getting immediate help for a drug problem…please reach out to us. Our staff at American Addiction Centers are focused on long term recovery. We use a combination of medications, talk therapy, medical detox, and holistic treatment to address the mind, body, and spirit. And rehab can truly help you turn your life around.

Please give us a call to talk about your treatment options. Or, give us a call if you’re worried about a loved one. Voluntary treatment can be a true, life changing experience.

When to Contact a Lawyer

It’s important to seek out legal advice when you’re caught with drug possession in New Jersey. Due to the strict penalties you could be facing, a lawyer can help you understand your options. You see, most people who face drug possession charges have a case which is unique to them. Most likely, the same can be said for you. And when it comes to the uniqueness of your circumstances, you’ll want to know how to properly defend it in front of a court of law.

What if you can’t afford a lawyer? Then the state of New Jersey will provide you with one as long as you qualify for a public defender. This lawyer will provide you with free legal advice prior to your court date. He/she will give you the tools to best defend yourself.

There are multiple ways to go about trying to find a lawyer. A simple Google search of local lawyers will show you the many options you have. However, it’s in your best interest to look into each of these options and take a closer look at their experiences. The best way to do this is through the lawyer’s State Bar Profile. Every lawyer who is licensed to practice law must be listed on the Bar Associations Director for your state. Here’s a link to the New Jersey Bar.

Your Questions

This article aimed to offer you as much information on drug possession laws in New Jersey as possible. If you still have more questions, feel free to ask them in the comments below. If you have any more information to share about the topic, we’d also love to hear from you. We try to get back to everyone in a prompt and personal manner.

Reference Sources: [1] NCJRS: A Study of State Policies and Penalties:
[2] The State of New Jersey: Decriminalization of Marijuana Possession
[4] The State of New Jersey
[5] The State of New Jersey: New Jersey Courts and Criminal Process
[6] The State of New Jersey: Drug Courts Brochure

About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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