By Gloria Stravelli
METUCHEN –- With a state deadline looming, the Metuchen Borough Council took the preemptive step of voting to prohibit operation of any type of cannabis business within the boundaries of the municipality.
“I want to make it very clear, and the council members can join in … that I personally support cannabis in Metuchen,” Mayor Jonathan Busch said at the June 28 public hearing.
Ordinance 2021-10, adopted by a unanimous vote of council members, prohibits the operation of any class of cannabis businesses within the borough boundaries and amends Section 110-93 of the Metuchen Code.
“I know the borough overwhelmingly supports cannabis in Metuchen; the vote was overwhelmingly passed when the referendum was on the (November) ballot,” the mayor said, “and in fact, the resolution … prohibiting cannabis in the borough, the first paragraph reads: ‘Whereas the borough is supportive of the sale and distribution of cannabis but requires time for state regulations to be finalized.’ “
Ordinance 2012-10 states that in 2020 New Jersey voters approved Public Question No. 1, which amended the New Jersey Constitution to allow for the legalization of a controlled form of marijuana called “cannabis” for adults at least 21 years of age.
“On Feb. 22, Gov. Murphy signed into law P.L. 2021, c. 16, known as the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory, Enforcement Assistance, and Marketplace Modernization Act, which legalizes the recreational use of marijuana by adults 21 years or older, and establishes comprehensive regulatory and licensing procedures for commercial recreational (adult use) cannabis operations, use and possession,” Ordinance 2021-10 reads.
The ordinance cites a looming deadline that has spurred municipalities like Metuchen to act to ban cannabis sales for the time being.
“The Act requires that any municipal prohibition by the Borough of Metuchen must be adopted within 180 days of the effective date of the Act (by Aug. 21, 2021), and that the failure to timely act shall mean that for a period of five years thereafter, the growing, cultivating, manufacturing, selling and reselling of cannabis and cannabis items shall automatically be permitted uses in all industrial zones, and the retail selling of cannabis items to consumers shall be a conditional use in all commercial and retail zones.
The full text of Ordinance 2021-10 is viewable at www.metuchennj.org/metnj/GOVERNMENT/Council
According to the NJ Department of Health Division of Medical Marijuana website, cannabis is legal under state law for adults 21 and over for recreational and medical use. Voters approved recreational use in the November 2020 election.
“In a nutshell, here’s how it goes: every municipality in New Jersey is required to act by Aug. 21 to determine whether or not they’re allowing cannabis for sale or distribution in their town,” Busch said.
“If you do nothing, automatically everywhere is allowed without knowing what the regulations are from the state because the state – surprise, surprise – has not issued any regulations whatsoever, has very little guidance. There’s this new commission that’s supposed to be providing some guidance for places like us to figure out how we’re going to do this, how we’re going to regulate it, if at all.
“But if we either don’t do anything or if we opt in, we’re in that same position for five years. If we opt out, we can opt in tomorrow and for the time being, there is literally little to no guidance for us and it wouldn’t be responsible for us to make a decision on this without that guidance
“So what we’re doing is, we’re waiting for the guidance to become available so we can carefully process and then we will make a final determination of how we can proceed,” Busch said.
Council member Tyler Kandel pointed out other New Jersey towns are faced with the same dilemma.
“It’s important to note also that every single municipality in New Jersey is voting on the same ordinance that we are, to ban, at least initially, cannabis in their municipality and then it gives them the option, after the state issues the regulations and that guidance,” he said. “We are not an anomaly, we are by far within the normal course of the municipalities.”
Busch agreed, adding he has spoken to officials in other towns about the issue.
“I spoke to a council member in Edison that is considering the same ordinance tonight,” he said, “and it seems that they’re going to adopt the same ordinance. I spoke to (Woodbridge) Mayor (John) McCormick earlier today. They have a different dynamic because they have a medical marijuana business on Route 1 that’s been there already and the medical marijuana businesses are automatically being converted to recreational marijuana businesses.
“Just so you all know … it’s possible for every place in the borough to be selling marijuana. They’re going to be very carefully regulated the way alcohol is, as well. We’d be really lucky to even get one, if you want to call it lucky, if you happen to be on the same side of this issue.
“A town our size may not get any. You just don’t know what the state’s going to do, but it’s important for us to be able to carefully consider it once we have something to consider.”
Dan Cotton, a borough resident, spoke in support of allowing cannabis businesses to operate in the borough, interjecting a little humor and adding that tax dollars from cannabis sales would help the borough.
“I strongly think you should opt in … The reason I want everybody to opt in is … my family owned a bar in town. My family’s been here for four generations, 1939 to 2003, and I used to tend bar there.
“You know alcohol is a crazy drug, right? People black out, they fight each other. People smoke a little (cannabis), they want to eat Cheetos and go to sleep, laugh a little, watch Cheech & Chong,” he said.
“And … the tax money from the sale of cannabis could help a lot of things … I want Metuchen to opt in because if people can drink ’til they pass out and fight each other, they should be able to recreationally use marijuana,” said Cotton, adding that he works as a mental health nurse.
Busch said following introduction of the ordinance at the June 14 meeting there was a great deal of public comment on the borough Facebook page, much of which was based on a misunderstanding of facts.
“It was remarkable to see on social media some of the comments, no matter what people showed them about the ordinance,” he said. “We support this, we just need more guidance. What person, what government, doesn’t consider carefully the information before it makes a decision?”
Council Oresident Linda Koskoski pointed out the discussion centers around more than retail sales.
“When we’re talking about this, we’re talking about not just the retail sale of cannabis. When that law was passed, it approved all different kinds of businesses around cannabis and I’m totally for that … But as a town we need to make considerations about, are we going to have grow businesses? Are we going to have retail businesses?
“So there’s a lot to consider and we don’t have the guidance from the state, so I just want to make it clear that it’s not just, ‘Oh, we open a pot store on Main Street, it’s cool’ … but it’s all these different businesses where we decide what zone do we put them in and we need guidance from the state to be able to do that.
“But I think we’re committed to bringing this to the town, we just want to bring it on our terms and how we think it’s best to be introduced into our town,” she said.
The council unanimously approved a motion to adopt the ordinance on second reading.