ASBURY PARK – City leaders are hitting the brakes on allowing legal weed in Asbury Park, saying New Jersey’s deadline for opting out of cannabis businesses didn’t give them enough time to come up with thoughtful marijuana zoning regulations.
An ordinance allowing Asbury Park to opt out of having marijuana businesses, such as dispensaries or cultivation centers, in city limits is making its way through the city’s planning board review and is expected to return to the city council for a final vote on July 14.
But in a city where more than eight out of every 10 votes backed New Jersey marijuana legalization, city leaders made it clear their decision to opt out of the legal weed business was a short-term pause.
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“This gives us time to figure out what we want to do,” Asbury Park Mayor John Moor said. “I don’t think we’ll be ready by August.”
New Jersey towns have until Aug. 21 to set up their own regulations for dispensaries or ban them outright. Otherwise the new businesses will be able to operate for five years under state regulations.
Hitting pause will allow Asbury Park to prepare for what could be an onslaught of demand when it does allow marijuana businesses. In the years while state lawmakers debated legalization, as many as 70 different potential businesses reached out to Asbury Park officials seeking to gain a foothold in the city.
Without zoning laws in place, officials fear they could have businesses open doors in areas of the city that are not a good fit for Asbury Park, then would be grandfathered in to the landscape.
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Moor said he suspected the city would undertake a request for proposals process to marijuana businesses once the zoning is ready to go.
It’s not clear how long it will take Asbury Park to develop its marijuana regulations. Moor said he and Deputy Mayor Amy Quinn are on a council subcommittee researching options.
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Asbury Park had the second-highest approval rate of the November constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana, with 83.89% of voters supporting the amendment.
Only South Orange had a larger percent of its voters supporting legal weed, at 84.08% approving. Overall, 67% of New Jerseyans approved legalization.
But its likely supporters will see a number of towns opt out of having cannabis businesses at first while municipal leaders develop regulations for their communities, said Michael Cerra, executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities.
“They’re not afraid of cannabis, but they’re concerned of the state regulatory scheme,” he said.
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Cerra said the League of Municipalities is tracking how towns are proceeding with the marijuana laws, but noted that it’s a bit of a “whack-a-mole” situation right now as elected officials suss out whether their residents also wanted marijuana businesses in their towns when they voted to legalize weed use.
“It’s very fluid. We may hear a town is doing A, but after a public hearing they might be changing course,” he said.
But some towns are also ready to go with legalization, Cerra said. Trenton is one of them, led by Mayor Reed Gusciora, who was the original sponsor of marijuana legalization bills when he was in the state Assembly.
And in Monmouth County, Neptune and Eatontown are looking into zoning changes to allow marijuana businesses. Both municipalities are already home to medical marijuana dispensaries: Garden State Dispensary in Eatontown and ZenLeaf in Neptune.
In Asbury Park, Moor said he personally is leery of parts of the marijuana law approved by state legislators.
Moor said he was a supporter of the idea first pitched when the state began discussing legalization: Cannabis customers would make a purchase at a dispensary in Asbury Park and lock them in the trunk of their cars while they then went to the beach, out to dinner or to a concert. Then they’d drive home where they’d consume their cannabis product.
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But the law now allows legal weed “consumption areas” — smoking lounges, which Moor said runs counter to statements state lawmakers had made prior that people consuming marijuana products should not drive or operate heavy machinery after doing so.
“What do they think? Everyone is going to Uber in and Uber out of these smoking lounges?” Moor asked.
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Susanne Cervenka covers Monmouth County government and property tax issues, winning several state and regional awards for her work. She’s covered local government for 15 years, with stops in Ohio and Florida before arriving in New Jersey in 2013. Contact her at @scervenka; 732-643-4229; email@example.com.