MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — As other Cape May County towns move to block cannabis-related businesses, Middle Township officials may be heading in the opposite direction.
The Township Committee already supported a proposal for a medical marijuana facility on Indian Trail Road, and members are now considering a request to expand that use to grow for the new adult-use market.
Massachusetts-based cannabis company Insa plans to demolish the former La Monica seafood processing plant, which has been closed for years, to make way for a new building where cannabis would be grown, processed and sold to those with state-issued medical marijuana cards.
Middle Township supported that plan in 2019, a step needed for the company’s application for a license to grow and sell for the medical market in New Jersey.
Things have changed since then. In February, New Jersey joined the growing number of states to approve a taxed and regulated marijuana market for those over 21; what could be the start of a new billion-dollar legal industry.
“We wanted to touch base with the town in light of the new law,” said Steve Reilly, a founder and part-owner of Insa, which is based in Easthampton, Mass., and now has locations in Florida and Pennsylvania.
The company is not asking to expand the proposed retail operation at the site in the Goshen section of the township beyond the medicinal market.
“We don’t think it’s a good site for that. We think the town agrees with that,” he said in a recent phone interview. “At the same time, we think the adult use law presents an opportunity for greater economic development there.”
In Massachusetts, he said, the adult-use sales — what people often describe as recreational marijuana — is 10 times the size of the medical market. The company has proposed increasing the size of the facility to grow for that adult use market, to be sold at a different site.
Where that will be has not been determined, Reilly said, but he expects it to be in South Jersey. The plans for Indian Trail Road would be amended, he said, with a potential for further expansion in the future. The property includes several acres.
“We would want to do it all on the same site,” he said. “It’s big enough where we could have a pretty sizable facility.”
There has been no formal vote on the idea from Township Committee — a requirement for any expansion under the agreement from 2019 — but the township appears ready to welcome the proposal.
The original plan envisioned about 100 year-round jobs, which would put the company among the biggest employers in the county. An expanded site would also expand the number of jobs to about 200, plus give the township a chance to impose a 1% tax on what is grown or manufactured for the adult-use market.
“Why would we not be in favor of that?” said Mayor Tim Donohue, if the use is zoned properly and well managed. “I believe that if we handle this the right way, and I think we will, this will be an overall benefit to the township.”
At the March 15 Township Committee meeting, Donohue reported that he and township administrator Kimberly Krauss met with Insa representatives about the proposal. So far, the township has not made a decision on whether to allow adult-use dispensaries anywhere in the township.
Ocean City and North Wildwood have already introduced ordinances declaring that commercial cannabis operations will not be welcome in any zone, while Upper Township and Wildwood Crest plan to move forward with ordinances of their own and multiple other communities have begun discussions.
“They’re not going to be able to ban marijuana in their towns,” Donohue said. The package of laws signed by Gov. Phil Murphy on Feb. 22 allows towns to limit sales, but does not allow them to ban home delivery, and just like in “dry” communities where residents can bring home a six-pack, homeowners will be allowed to smoke marijuana on their front porch.
Middle Township will have to decide whether to allow adult-use shops, and if so, where to put them. Towns have until the summer to approve an ordinance.
“We would like to hear from the public,” Donohue said. He also pointed out that Middle Township voters said yes to legalization by a strong margin in the November referendum.
“Our job is to do what the voters want,” he said. “I’d like to hear from the public.”
He said he would oppose allowing any kind of consumption lounge that would allow customers to indulge on the premises. As far as what happens in people’s homes, Donohue took a laissez-faire approach.
“I’m fairly libertarian on the issue. I don’t think marijuana is harmless by any means,” he said, but responsible adults should be able to decide for themselves.
One limit expected to pass is a ban on smoking or vaping marijuana on public property. Donohue said that ordinance will likely be introduced April 5, and that Cape May County is working on similar limits to include county parks and other properties.
Cape May has also taken a similar step. Donohue compared it to limits on open containers of alcohol or cigarette smoking in public parks.
Insa has applied for the latest round of medical cannabis licenses in the state. That process had been delayed by a lawsuit, but Reilly said it’s now moving forward. Still unknown is how the state will allocate adult-use licenses, but winning a medicinal marijuana license and opening a facility will give the company a head-start in the new market.
That played a part in choosing the Middle location, he said. The county does not have a medical marijuana facility, and transforming an abandoned plant into a productive company will help as well.
“It’s trying to tell a story about the site to the state; saying that it’s a good thing for Middle Township and a good thing for New Jersey,” he said. He sees a lot of opportunity in the New Jersey market and plans to act fast if the license is approved.
“I would hope that we’d have the facility under construction by the end of the year. I think that’s a reasonable expectation,” he said.