As the New Jersey legislature passes its marijuana bill to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk for signing, local leaders discuss how their municipalities might handle the challenges and opportunities of the new green industry.
By Matt Skoufalos | December 17, 2020
On Thursday, New Jersey legislators in the state Senate and Assembly both passed landmark legislation approving recreational adult-use cannabis, eliminating criminal and civil penalties for possession of up to six ounces of marijuana, and downgrading the penalty for sale of up to one ounce of the drug to a warning for first offenders and fourth-degree (disorderly persons) charges for subsequent offenses.
The vote comes a little more than a month after New Jersey voters overwhelmingly approved the modification of the state constitution to decriminalize the drug, and years after legislative talks on the issue, one of Governor Phil Murphy’s signature campaign planks, had broken down.
It will still take months before the structures establishing the state cannabis industry are solidified; however, local leaders are already considering the potential for economic growth in their communities, as well as the careful work that goes into establishing the right fits for such businesses there.
Such discussions were top-of-mind last March, when the county held a cannabis forum in Somerdale, but they are rounding more sharply into focus in the wake of the ballot initiative and today’s vote.
Haddonfield Mayor Neal Rochford said that his chief concerns about recreational cannabis include drivers who may operate vehicles under the influence and keeping products out of the hands of young residents.
“From a public safety point of view, there’s been concerns amongst the mayors in Camden County about how to protect people from weed and driving,” Rochford said.
“There is a concern from law enforcement that there’s going to be a lot more people on the road that are inhibited from driving safely; there are no good [field sobriety] tests like there is for alcohol,” he said.
The Haddonfield municipal government has already passed a zoning ordinance that would prohibit any cannabis retail operation from setting up shop on King’s Highway, and Rochford is curious as to whether any such operation would have other facility requirements that would complicate siting one within the borough.
According to the framework of the law, municipalities can choose to exclude any cannabis operation from operating within their limits within 180 days of its passage; however, they cannot prohibit the delivery of cannabis products within their communities.
That exclusion is good for five years, unless the municipality renews its ban on those operations by ordinance.
Local governments are also allowed to establish municipal licenses for the operation of cannabis establishments in addition to the licensing process outlined in the state law. They can also create on-premises consumption areas for both medical and recreational users, following the same regulations under which cigar lounges operate.
Rochford, who has long worked on the Haddonfield Municipal Alliance, a town-wide anti-drug and addictions working group, is also concerned with mitigating the impact of any recreational usage among underage residents of the borough. Although the historically dry borough has welcomed a craft brewery and winery tasting room, Rochford said the work of the Alliance continues, and will be important to bolster amid recreational cannabis.
“The message has been not to use drugs, and I think it’s a good message,” he said. “Obviously marijuana isn’t the same as cocaine, heroin, and alcohol, [but] I don’t want to see kids going to school high; I don’t want to see them getting into habits that would be detrimental to their health in the future.”
Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley said local leaders held similar discussions about where to situate a cannabis facility in the borough as state legislators pondered earlier drafts of the law.
“We were looking at probably zoning either a part of Route 130 to make it permitted, really with two purposes in mind,” Maley said.
“We would look at doing it someplace like that, with less of a residential impact, and therefore be opted in, so we could see how things go.
“We were looking at how could we do this to take advantage of it in a baby-step way.”
The mayor said he hopes that Collingswood will try to position itself to take advantage of the new cannabis market “more than dipping our toe in the pool, but probably not doing a swan dive in.
“We’ll certainly get involved in it to test and see how it goes,” he said.
Like Haddonfield, Collingswood is a historically dry town that has welcomed a craft brewery in recent years, but Maley views the borough stance on liquor licenses as distinct from any proposals on recreational cannabis.
The population-based rules that govern the distribution of alcohol licenses in New Jersey dictate that Collingswood would only be able to add two or three licenses in town, which the mayor fears would harm its restaurant-heavy business district. He has no such reservations about any negative impact of recreational cannabis on its eateries.
“I think for a lot of people it’s going to be a social issue,” Maley said. “With anything new, there are ripples we’ve never anticipated. If you’re in local government enough, you always think of the bad stuff, [but] there’ll be positives of it too. How do we do it in a way that benefits the town without any of the bad side effects?”
In Haddon Township, Mayor Randy Teague said the local government is “open to opportunities” presented by the new cannabis market, especially given how its budget has been battered by the impact of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
“Any opportunities for revenue we do have to take a hard look at, and this appears to be an opportunity for additional revenue into the town,” Teague said.
“Initially we weren’t sure about cannabis sales in our town, and this state putting it out as a referendum, I think, made it easier for everybody,” he said; “politically easier, but also easier getting a sense of the community’s take on it.”
Prior to the statewide referendum, Teague said Haddon Township had considered holding a local ballot question about recreational cannabis, but that process was obviated by the outcome of the vote.
He views the new opportunities of a cannabis market as comparable to the pilot programs under which the township established its community garden and backyard hen programs: look for resident-driven solutions first, and build them out from there.
“We were very cautious, we had several meetings, we heard the pros and the cons,” he said.
“We would be open to something like that; again, it would have to be a well thought-out plan.”
Haddon Township had previously fielded interest in a handful of vacant properties from cannabis vendors, but those proved to be more exploratory than concrete. Teague believes that some of those lots may come into play again as the legislation takes effect.
“We do have some vacant areas in those different areas of town, and this could open up some opportunities,” he said. “Obviously we’d like to make as much revenue from this as possible.”
New Jersey Senator Nicholas Scutari (D, NJ-22), the chief architect of the legislation, said he is most excited to see the state having cleared a path for economic activity and restorative justice.
“I’ve been working on this for quite a while; there were a number of different hurdles,” Scutari said, including revenue-sharing (up to 2 percent of revenues can be retained at the local level), cultivation caps, and employment.
“The economic activity, it’s going to be large, I assume,” Scutari said, pointing to “opportunities for job creation, storefronts, and business places that are going to be able to be filled.
As written, the bill directs 70 percent of state tax revenues to communities disproportionately affected by the criminalization of marijuana, although critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, say the law could do more.
In a statement Thursday, ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha critiqued the 37-cultivator license cap included in the bill, “more than half of which have already been granted to medical cannabis licensees.
“The bill does not include several important justice measures, such as: restoring dedicated funding for expungement, limiting random workplace drug testing, and, crucially, closing a loophole that allows well-resourced businesses to claim and benefit from impact zone applicant status rather than residents,” Sinha wrote in a statement.
“The ACLU-NJ’s priorities once implementation and decriminalization go into law include:
- Securing robust community input regarding allocation of funds for community reinvestment
- Building equity into the industry through work with the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, including the prioritization of including individuals from impact zones and those with prior cannabis-related records and their families in licensing
- Ensuring that people aren’t still subject to arrests and criminalization based on cannabis
- Making sure the expungement process is accessible, fair, and effective
Another key provision of the bill that was negotiated in the latter days of legislative bartering is the ability for “micro-businesses”—those of 10 people or fewer—to acquire less-expensive licenses for the creation of much smaller cannabis grower, processor, wholesaler, retailer, distributor, and delivery services.
At the outset, license-holders will be limited to one of any of those business segments, but they can be vertically integrated.
The bill passed Thursday now heads to Governor Phil Murphy’s desk for his signature. On November 6, three days after New Jersey voters approved the referendum legalizing recreational cannabis, Murphy announced Dianna Houenou as Chair and Jeff Brown as Executive Director of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission in Trenton, the body that will oversee regulation of the state marijuana industry.
“Job number one is equity here,” Murphy said in that briefing, outlining challenges such as “who gets the licenses, where they’re located, [and creating] a balance between folks who are already in this industry with the folks who are in the small business and startup community, which we value so much in this state.
“This notion of equity will be evidenced in a number of ways throughout this as it takes hold,” he said then.
Houenou added that the legislation is “also about making sure that the communities that have been harmed are restored.
“It’s not just about the arrests that have been made each year, it’s about everything,” she said.
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