WARREN TWP. – The Township Committee voted unanimously Thursday to bar commercial marijuana growers, sellers and manufacturers from opening in town.
The move comes as New Jersey municipalities have until Aug. 22 to either opt in or opt out of allowing legal marijuana businesses to open within their borders. Towns that opt out, like Warren, have the option of opting back in at any time, but towns that do not act at all are automatically opted in for five years by default.
For the most part, Township Committee members said the decision is more about procedure than propriety, as Committeewoman Jolanta Maziarz put it. Committee members said they need time to educate themselves on the issue and to see what the rollout of marijuana legalization will look like in other towns.
“I don’t wish to expose my community to something that is unknown,” Maziarz said, “it’s not the prudent thing to do. I don’t want us to be the guinea pigs, that’s all.”
About 60 percent of Warren voters voted “yes” on Public Question No. 1 in the 2020 general election to amend the State Constitution to legalize adult possession and use of marijuana, and to legalize the cultivation, processing and sale of retail marijuana. The measure passed statewide with about 67 percent of the vote.
Advocates Address Committee
The unanimous vote came following impassioned pleas from legal marijuana advocates for the committee to reconsider the ban. Four of the five speakers spoke of the need to provide easy access to medical marijuana for the sick.
East Hanover resident Edward Grimes said the group has attended about 100 local government meetings this year urging towns to welcome marijuana businesses.
“There are sick people that need your help,” he said. “We’re not here for recreational marijuana, we’re here to talk about medical cannabis for people that are suffering from cancer and suffer from multiple sclerosis,” among other diseases and conditions.
With only 13 medical marijuana dispensaries in the state, Grimes said the lines are long and supplies are low for people who need help. By banning marijuana sales locally, he said the committee may be asking wheelchair-bound residents to find a ride out of town, or to pay extra by ordering medical cannabis through the mail.
In implementing a nearly 7 percent tax on marijuana sales, Grimes added, the New Jersey is effectively taxing medicine. Towns also have the option of tacking on an additional 2 percent tax on local marijuana sales.
The committee heard additional pleas for them to think of those suffering from cancer, auto-immune disorders, depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the latter two being especially common among military veterans.
Hugh Giordano, a representative of the United Food and Commercial and Commercial Workers union, urged the committee to table the ordinance so as not to deprive residents of employment opportunities and the township of economic growth. He said the cannabis industry in New Jersey offers living wages and strong protections for workers.
Only one Warren resident, Joseph Farro of Sage Drive, spoke during the public hearing on the ordinance. Farro said he supported the committee’s decision to implement the ban.
Committee members said they support the use of medical marijuana and expressed sympathy to those suffering, but said the ordinance is necessary to regulate the sale of recreational marijuana while the township still has the power to do so.
“We need time to figure it out, and that’s all we’re doing,” Maziarz said. “We’re trying to take our time to figure it out so that we can impose appropriate regulations, because if we don’t do it by August, then we will have forfeited our opportunity as a town to regulate our land uses appropriately. I don’t think we should be doing that.
“So as much as I’m sympathetic, we need time, we need to figure this out and we need to do it right.”
Deputy Mayor Victor Sordillo expressed concern about exposing his grandchildren to the odor of marijuana should its use become more prevalent, and said he believes many residents feel the same way. He said he would like to see two to three years of data on the risks and results of legal marijuana in New Jersey before reconsidering the ban.
Mayor George Lazo said the committee needs more time to study the issue, noting it can opt into welcoming marijuana businesses at any time once it feels it has done its due diligence.