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Hightstown to ban sale, cultivation, distribution of cannabis

Businesses that want to grow, package, distribute and sell cannabis would not be permitted to open their doors in Hightstown.

The Hightstown Borough Council voted 5-1 to introduce an amendment to the town’s zoning ordinance banning those businesses from opening up shop anywhere in the borough.

The delivery of cannabis by a delivery service is not affected.

Councilman Josh Jackson, who cast the lone dissenting vote at the Borough Council’s May 3 meeting, said that the legalization of recreational marijuana could lead to good business opportunities in Hightstown.

Because it is an amendment to the zoning ordinance, the proposed ordinance will be sent to the Hightstown Planning Board for review at comment at its May 10 meeting.

The Planning Board will send its comments back to the Borough Council in time for a public hearing on the ordinance at the council’s May 17 meeting.

New Jersey voters overwhelmingly approved legalizing adult-use (recreational) marijuana in a statewide referendum in November by a vote of 2.7 million to 1.3 million. In Hightstown, it was approved by a vote of 5,107 to 3,663.

Hightstown, along with all municipalities in New Jersey, must decide by Aug. 21 whether to allow those businesses to operate in town. Their locations and hours of operation must be set, as well as penalties for violating regulations.

The New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory, Enforcement Assistance and Marketplace Modernization Act, which legalizes recreational marijuana use by persons who are at least 21 years old, states that a town may prohibit the operation of any one of several classes of cannabis businesses – cultivation, manufacturing, distribution and sale – by adopting an ordinance.

If a town does not act to ban any or all cannabis-related businesses by the Aug. 21 deadline, the businesses would be allowed to operate in all industrial zones. The retail sale of cannabis products would be permitted as a conditional use in all commercial and retail zones for five years.

At the end of the five-year period, a town would have six months to adopt an ordinance to regulate or ban the businesses. However, the ordinance would not apply to businesses already operating in the town.

Councilman Dimitri Musing said the recommendation to amend the zoning ordinance was made by the Hightstown Borough Council subcommittee that was asked to look into allowing cannabis businesses to open in the borough. He served on the subcommittee with Jackson and Councilwoman Cristina Fowler.

While New Jersey voters approved the legalization of marijuana for recreational use, state officials have not established regulations or released guidelines. Marijuana is still listed as a Schedule 1 controlled substance by the U.S. government, he said.

The ordinance introduced by the Hightstown Borough Council stated that “due to present uncertainties regarding the potential future impacts that allowing one or more classes of cannabis business might have on New Jersey municipalities and on the borough in particular,” it is in the best interests of the health, safety and welfare of residents and visitors to ban cannabis-related businesses from opening in town.

The proposed ordinance also states that the New Jersey State League of Municipalities and the New Jersey Institute of Local Government Attorneys have urged towns to hold off on allowing cannabis businesses to open “in order to ensure sufficient time to carefully review all aspects of the act and its impacts.”

Councilman Steve Misiura, who voted for the proposed ordinance, agreed that banning cannabis-related businesses would give officials more time to study the matter and decide how to respond. The ordinance is not a permanent ban, because it can be brought up again in five years.

“We want to get this right,” Misiura said.

Councilwoman Cristina Fowler said there are “too many unknowns.” Since the town can opt in later, it makes sense for the town to conduct due diligence, she said.

The proposed ordinance gives the impression that the Borough Council opposes allowing cannabis-related businesses to open in Hightstown, Councilman Joseph Cicalese said. He said he had spoken to many people in town and they favor allowing the businesses to open.

“(But) at this point, from what I have heard, this is no reason to opt in (and allow the businesses to open),” Cicalese said.

Councilwoman Susan Bluth said that while she is not opposed to cannabis businesses, she does not have enough information at this point.

“There are a lot of factors involved. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the surrounding communities. Will people come here to buy weed?” Bluth said.

Hightstown Borough Administrator Debra Sopronyi said that Ewing Township is the only Mercer County town that has opted in to permit cannabis businesses to open thus far. The other Mercer County towns have either opted out or are still studying it, she said.

But John Laudenberger III, who sits on the Hightstown Planning Board, said that banning the cultivation, manufacturing, distribution and sale of cannabis is a “missed opportunity” to create jobs and generate additional tax revenue.

Laudenberger said he understands the concerns because the state has not issued guidelines or regulations, but the town will “miss the boat” if it adopts the ordinance later this month. Hightstown has an opportunity to “get in on the ground floor,” he said.

Hightstown voters approved the referendum to legalize marijuana, Laudenberger reminded the Hightstown Borough Council.

“I find it hard to interpret (the results) as anything but a mandate. We may be a small town, but there is no reason to think small,” Laudenberger said.

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