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South Jersey towns rush to ban pot despite NJ voters overwhelmingly supporting it
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South Jersey towns rush to ban pot despite NJ voters overwhelmingly supporting it

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Weed

On Monday, Governor Phil Murphy signed legislation legalizing marijuana use in New Jersey

Despite overwhelmingly being approved by voters in November, recreational marijuana has been slow to garner support at the local level.

Since the bill was signed into law Feb. 22 and guidance was issued on legalized marijuana, towns around the area have been quick to adopt their own legislation all but banning the recreational smoking of marijuana despite voters supporting it by a 67% to 32% margin. All but three of the state’s 565 municipalities voted in favor of it at the polls.

“This is what happens when police goals conflict with policy implementation,” said Benjamin Dworkin, director of Rowan University’s Institute for Public Policy & Citizenship. “In the state it’s popular, but it comes down to where you live.”

Under the N.J. Cannabis Regulatory, Enforcement Assistance and Marketplace Modernization Act, towns have until Aug. 21 — 180 days from the adoption of the state law — to create any local enforcement structure. Towns that do not act by then will be governed by the state’s law.

The legalization of marijuana is expected to generate $126 million in tax revenue for the state, according to a marijuana advocacy group.

For Ocean City, banning recreational marijuana use was a natural progression. The resort has banned alcohol sales since its inception as a Christian resort in the late 19th century.

“We don’t allow alcohol sales, we shouldn’t allow this,” Councilwoman Karen Bergman said after voting to ban recreational marijuana in the city.

In practice, cannabis enforcement for adults in the resort will be similar — anyone over the age of 21 coming to town with a six-pack of beer or a bag of weed for consumption at home is perfectly legal.

Unlike Ocean City, Atlantic City has embraced recreational pot and its financial benefits. The city, which has a medical dispensary on the Boardwalk and a planned second location, also expects to take advantage of a 2% tax the city can collect on sales of cannabis products.

“The state should consider the opportunities that may be created by new initiatives, including the legalization of recreational use marijuana, as potential sources of political and financial support for the efforts to restart and recover Atlantic City,” according to a state-issued report outlining the resort’s path to post COVID-19 pandemic recovery.

Municipalities’ quick opposition to recreational marijuana could be rooted in some considering it a “gateway drug” and the stigma attached to it, political analysts said.

“It’s kind of unique. You don’t see too many illegal products that become legal,” said John Froonjian, executive director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University. “I guess it’s the association with drug abuse and the decades-long war on drugs, going back all the way to the movie ‘Reefer Madness’ in the 1930s.”

Demographics also play a role in municipalities’ decisions to ban recreational marijuana, Dworkin said.

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“Older populations have a traditionally negative view,” Dworkin said. “We have gone 50 years of messaging that marijuana is a bad thing. These are still very powerful messages that residents and politicians have.”

Froonjian said he sees a comparison to restrictive zoning towns do to prevent certain types of businesses, such as adult bookstores and strip clubs, on moral grounds.

“One difference is some of these adult bookstores and clubs are able to sue under the First Amendment,” Froonjian said. “This law gives these towns a window (of time to restrict cannabis businesses). So that makes it really different. … You may have to allow the adult bookstore, but not the legal dispensary.”

While some towns are against the use of recreational marijuana, many are keeping their options open to a medical or retail dispensary.

Northfield has said it would keep its options open.

“I look at Northfield as more of a retail opportunity,” said Councilman Paul Utts during a recent City Council workshop meeting.

He said the potential to generate tax revenue and create jobs is there as Tilton Road acts as a corridor to nearby shore towns.

He proposed storefronts for recreational marijuana only be permitted in a specific zone that runs near the Dunkin’ on Tilton Road and heads west to the Egg Harbor Township border.

Cultivating and manufacturing marijuana would not be permitted through the proposed ordinance.

“If the price point is correct, if it’s not overly taxed and cultivators can grow it at a price point that’s below the street, then you’ll deprive the street of that revenue,” he said. “Organized crime, which brings these drugs in … we’ll deprive that revenue and hopefully it’ll just be the recreational, legal version that gets taxed. It’s not that we’ll attract organized crime, it’s that we’re trying to defeat organized crime. If you tax it too much, and it’s more expensive than the street, then the street will continue to thrive.”

Middle Township has supported a proposal for a medical marijuana facility at the site of a former La Monica seafood processing plant. The Massachusetts company Insa plans to build a new facility at the site to grow and sell cannabis and cannabis-infused products to those with state-issued medical cards.

Depending on how things go, towns could change their minds, Froonjian and Dworkin said.

“We are in the very early stages,” Dworkin said. “I think that some will let it settle and then see what happens.”

Contact Nicholas Huba :

609-272-7046

nhuba@pressofac.com

Twitter @acpresshuba

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