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Why Most New Jersey Municipalities Are Banning Marijuana Shops Despite Overwhelming Public Support



The vast majority of New Jersey voters approved a referendum last year to legalize marijuana. So why have more than 70 percent of municipalities in the state opted to ban cannabis businesses from operating in their area?

The answer isn’t simple NIMBY-ism as some prohibitionists would have it. First of all, voters haven’t had a direct say in the local decisions so far, with local officials making the choice through city councils.

But it’s also the case that elected officials several areas who do support cannabis commercialization chose to enact a ban ahead of an August 22 deadline simply to give themselves more time to develop individualized regulations before greenlighting marijuana companies. That was also the deadline for the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission (NJCRC) to issue initial state regulations for the market, which it did slightly ahead of schedule last week.

“I fought hard for cannabis legalization in New Jersey, but in the past couple of months I have recommended that municipalities ‘opt out’ of allowing dispensaries as a temporary measure, unless they were ready to approve a specific dispensary before the ‘opt out’ deadline last week,” David Nathan, founder of Doctors For Cannabis Regulation, told Marijuana Moment. “That’s because towns that opt in cannot opt out for several years, but towns that opt out can reverse their decision at any time.”

“In fact, I’m on the Princeton Cannabis Task Force and recommended that we opt out until we have zoning and other governance issues worked out,” he continued. “It’s not because I don’t think Princeton should have a dispensary—I actually do hope we have a dispensary ‘in my back yard.’ In particular I hope we choose a cannabis business that helps empower communities of color, which have disproportionately suffered under the war on drugs.”

In any case, as the New Jersey Herald, which is part of USA Today Network, reported on Monday, nearly 71 percent of jurisdictions—about 400 municipalities across the state—have said no to immediately allowing cannabis shops. And while it stands to reason that there could be some bottlenecking in consumer access because of that, stakeholders have stressed that they expect it to be temporary.

Here’s an interactive map showing the current local ordinances on marijuana businesses in New Jersey, according to the Herald.  

The Camden City Council voted against allowing adult-use marijuana businesses, for example, but it’s not because legislators oppose having the industry in its jurisdiction.

“It’s more like a pause on having the industry in the city, particularly to give us control over the industry in Camden,” Nichelle Pace, chair of the committee that issued the recommendation, told WHYY in June. “It gives us a chance to have a road map and put in best recommendations for policies and procedures.”

Nathan said that the “opting out we’re seeing across the state is simply the right strategy based on how the opt-out/opt-in rules were set up here in the Garden State.”

But ACLU of New Jersey attorney Joe Johnson told Marijuana Moment that many moves to ban cannabis businesses are based on “old stigmas rooted in fear, not reality.”

“With 67 percent of New Jersey voters saying yes to legalizing cannabis and passage in all but three of New Jersey’s 565 municipalities, the municipalities that have opted out have unfortunately missed an opportunity to carry out the will of the voters,” he said. “We hope for the sake of New Jerseyans that these municipalities take advantage of their freedom to reverse their initial decision and choose to opt in.”

The Herald illustrated the contrast between voter approval for reform and the local bans in a spreadsheet that shows the percentage of people in a given district who helped pass the referendum compared to the opt-out ordinances.

It found that while about 400 municipalities have decided—at least in the short-term—to disallow cannabis dispensaries, there are only three jurisdictions where voters didn’t approve legalization last year.

Here’s a list of local marijuana ordinances and the results of last year’s referendum vote for each jurisdiction, as analyzed by the Herald

Meanwhile, the mayors of Paterson and Englewood have both vetoed city council decisions to ban marijuana shops in recent weeks. Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh (D) said the city runs “significant risk of being last to the market with an inability to meaningfully take advantage of the legal, social, and economic opportunities legal cannabis provides” if it delays permitting the businesses.

With respect to NJCRC’s newly released rules for the adult-use marijuana market, here are the highlights: 

-Adults 21 and older can purchase and possess up to one ounce of marijuana. Home cultivation would not be permitted.

-There will be three licensing categories that regulators will prioritize that are designed to promote social equity by helping businesses that are minority- and women-owned or located in an economically distressed area.

-Regulators must pick a date for sales to launch within 180 days of the effective date.

-Overall, there are six main licensing categories: cultivators, manufactures, wholesalers, retailers, distributors and delivery services.

-While individual municipalities can elect to ban marijuana businesses from operating in their area—and hundreds have in anticipation of the enactment of these regulations—they cannot prohibit delivery services.

-Municipalities have until Saturday to enact ordinances regulating or banning cannabis businesses.

-Licensing decisions will be based on market demand, and regulators will also be prioritizing microbusiness and conditional licenses, in addition to social equity applicants.

-There will not be a licensing cap, except for cultivators. The cultivator cap is 37, though that expires on February 22, 2023.

-Prior marijuana convictions will not disqualify people from obtaining a cannabis business license.

-Existing medical marijuana dispensaries will be able to apply for municipal approval to sell recreational cannabis products. Their approval should be contingent on whether there’s enough supply to continue providing for patients.

-The fee to apply for the license is kept intentionally low, with applicants only needing to pay 20 percent of the fee at the time of submitting the application and 80 percent only if it’s approved. The total fees will range from $500-$2,000.

-Cannabis products must be in child-proof packaging with warning labels about potential health risks. Advertising is permitted, but with significant restrictions.

While the document sets the foundation for New Jersey’s marijuana market, regulators stressed that it will be built upon with more specific regulations for things like delivery services and wholesalers, and that the initial rules can still be amended over time.

Advocates would have hoped that the legalization bill signed by the governor would’ve included provisions allowing adults to cultivate for personal use, or restricted the ability of individual jurisdictions to opt out of permitting marijuana businesses. But regulators have noted that they are bound by the legislation and cannot independently make such rules.

Shortly after Gov. Phil Murphy (D) signed the implementation bill into law in February, the state’s attorney general directed prosecutors to drop cases for cannabis-related offenses and issued separate guidance for police on how to proceed under the updated laws.

And while the commission’s new rules for the market don’t touch on expungements for people with prior marijuana convictions, that process has been addressed in separate decriminalization legislation.

Last month, the New Jersey judiciary announced that it had vacated or dismissed nearly 88,000 marijuana cases since July 1, when the decriminalization law took effect mandating relief for people who have been caught up in prohibition enforcement.

The courts said these are just the first of about 360,000 cannabis cases that are eligible to be automatically vacated, dismissed and expunged.

Former state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal (D) has also taken steps to ensure that people aren’t exploiting provisions of the legalization law before retail sales launch.

In June, he sent warning letters to companies that were effectively circumventing the state’s marijuana laws by “gifting” cannabis in exchange for non-marijuana-related purchases such as overpriced cookies, brownies and stickers.

Gifting is lawful between adults 21 and older under New Jersey’s adult-use cannabis law, but a number of businesses have allegedly taken advantage of that policy by giving away “free” cannabis products to those who purchase other items like snacks and baked goods.

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