Nichelle Pace knows the committee she leads has a significant, and not terribly easy, task in front of it.
“We have our work cut out for us to put together equitable recommendations for licensing, community benefits, citizens re-entering after incarceration, youth prevention and education… the whole nine yards,” said Pace, who chairs the Camden Cannabis Committee.
The committee, formed by a May 11 City Council resolution, is tasked with bringing together representatives from the city’s business, economic development, educational. community and social justice realms to “ensure Camden takes a ‘Camden First’ community approach to the state’s emerging cannabis industry.”
Pace, vice president of the Camden Business Association, is joined on the committee by Sheilah Greene of Parkside Business and Community in Partnership (PBCIP), Tameeka Mason of One Camden, Maritza Alson of the IRS, Capt. Vivian Coley of the Camden County Police Department, Dwaine Williams (Camden’s Affirmative Action officer) and others.
The committee will host its first community town hall meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Urban Banquet Hall, 1999 Federal St.
Pace and the committee intend to take their time, and are emphasizing the need to do things right rather than to do them quickly.
But some in the city worry that approach might mean Camden misses out on a potentially lucrative source of revenue.
Vedra Chandler said she’s cautiously optimistic that the committee’s members will do a thorough job of looking at all the angles, but she’s concerned the pace of deliberations might put Camden at a disadvantage, especially as some neighboring suburbs weigh their own cannabis laws.
“This committee has the right philosophy and the right people,” said Chandler. “But I’d really like to see the city put the pedal to the metal and get moving. Let’s put something in place, even if it’s on the more restrictive side. There’s nothing that says we can’t tweak it later, and I worry we’re too preoccupied with getting it 100 percent right immediately.”
At a June 18 City Council meeting, Howard McCoach, an attorney, said the City of Camden needs to either opt in to allow marijuana dispensaries, or opt out, by Aug. 22.
“If you take no action, it’s automatically going to come into place on Aug. 22 and you’re very limited on what you can do,” he told Council. The committee, he added, was a way to maintain city-wide prohibition until the city receives feedback from residents.
“You can have discussions about how many licenses (to allow), locations, things like that,” McCoach said. “The idea is to have specific language before the planning board that prohibits these licenses until Council acts.”
Ed Williams, the city’s planning director and zoning officer, said, “Currently the zoning code doesn’t have any zones where this use a specifically permitted use, so by default it would be prohibited.”
Tina Sargenti, a board member with the New Jersey Cannabis Association, noted at the meeting that Camden is one of about 15 impact zones identified in the state’s legislation on legalized marijuana to allow sales.
“Camden is a really special place for cannabis,” she said. “Dispensaries will be able to give opportunities to women, minorities and small businesses,” and Camden, a cash-strapped city with longstanding financial struggles, would be able to collect a 2 percent tax on sales.
‘Get back what was lost’
Camden, like many post-industrial cities, was hit hard by the war on drugs. According to The Drug Policy Alliance, a national nonprofit that advocates for policies that reduce the harms done by both drug use and drug prohibitions, the national war on drugs “has produced profoundly unequal outcomes across racial groups, manifested through racial discrimination by law enforcement and disproportionate drug war misery suffered by communities of color.”
“Many different communities of color bear the impact of the discriminatory enforcement of drug laws,” the nonprofit says on its website. “This impact may vary across cities and regions. Nationwide, some of the most egregious racial disparities can be seen in the case of Black and Latinx people.”
Camden is a majority-minority city, one in which 41 percent of the population identifies as Black and 51 percent as Latino or Hispanic, according to 2019 U.S. Census estimates.
“Higher arrest and incarceration rates for these communities are not reflective of increased prevalence of drug use, but rather of law enforcement’s focus on urban areas, lower income communities and communities of color,” the Drug Policy Alliance said.
“Disparities in arrests and incarceration are seen for both drug possession law violations as well as low-level sales. Those selling small amounts of drugs to support their own drug use may go to jail for decades. This unequal enforcement ignores the universality of drug dependency, as well as the universal appeal of drugs themselves.”
“For us it’s really about, how do we get back the equity that was lost in our community because of the war on drugs?” said Pace. “How do we get back what was lost?”
Camden’s residents, its clergy, its police, its leaders and educators all have to rethink a lot of the conventional beliefs surrounding marijuana, Pace said.
“How do we unlearn all the things prohibition has put into our churches, our schools, our DARE programs?… We don’t even use the term ‘gateway’ anymore, which was a manifestation of the war on drugs. It’s the pharmaceutical companies who drove the opioid crisis and when are they going to be held accountable?
“There’s a great reckoning that has to happen, not only with (marijuana) but with the people who really did the harm.”
“We’re beaten down so bad, but it was never the drugs that were bad, it was the legality,” said Chandler. “This is yet another opportunity for White American to say this is OK if we can make money on it, but when it’s in your community, it’s bad.”
Chandler said she’d like to see marijuana regulated, from its processing to its sale to its consumption, much like liquor is.
With marijuana, “suppliers and demanders were turned into criminals,” she said. “Now the state is saying let’s take the social justice angle, but let’s let municipalities take that on themselves.
“So enough murdering and imprisoning people for selling a product that’s clearly in demand. … There are a lot of examples already of how this has been done well that span the nation. There are lots of opportunities for Black-owned businesses to come out of legalization, and Camden should be leading that charge” in South Jersey.
“I wonder if we’re afraid, too,” said Chandler said. “There were laws and they did all these horrible things to people… It’s like we’re scared of that, too. There’s an air of confidence in a place like Collingswood — they trust the law. Camden’s (attitude) is like, the law is tricky and we might get caught doing something. It’s the Black experience but also the marginalized person’s experience. We feel things differently.”
Chandler is also hoping the committee will solicit community input in how tax revenue from marijuana sales is used.
“I would love to see some of the money go toward the arts in Camden, and toward social programs,” she said. “I hope we incorporate those things early in the process and I want to see the revenue properly allotted, but we need to start earning it as soon as possible, too.”
“There are a lot of things that were broken and we’re hoping to put some of those pieces back together,” Pace said.
The Camden Cannabis Committee will host its first community town hall meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Urban Banquet Hall, 1999 Federal St., Camden. Masks are required and capacity is limited to allow for social distancing. To register, visit https://forms.gle/KCkWrJdHETcNYwNs8
Jim Walsh contributed to this story.
Phaedra Trethan has been a reporter and editor in South Jersey since 2007 and has covered Camden and surrounding areas since 2015, concentrating on issues relating to quality of life and social justice for the Courier-Post, Burlington County Times and The Daily Journal. She’s called South Jersey home since 1971. Contact her with feedback, news tips or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @By_Phaedra, or by phone at 856.486-2417.
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