BERNARDS TWP., NJ _ A wide variety of views _ and cautionary observations from both proponents and opponents _ marked the Bernards Township Committee's first public hearing to gain public input about what residents think about the possibility that the state might legalize recreational marijuana, and the already-approved loosening of medical marijuana distribution.

Mayor Carol Bianchi said last week the topic will come up for public hearing at a later date, and added the Township Committee might invite an expert on the subject to speak at a future meeting.

[Updated] On Friday, Bianchi said that residents are welcome to make further comments about what they think of the possibility that marijuana would be legalized on a statewide basis at the upcoming Township Committee scheduled for 8 p.m. on Tuesday, July 23. She emphasized the focus is on zoning, as the township has no jurisdiction on whether the state legalizes marijuana use.

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Township Committeewoman Joan Harris said the township should hear comments from the public before reacting to marijuana proposals under discussion, although she added that the Board of Health has distributed much information about marijuana use. 

"I would like to hear from more residents," agreed Township Committeeman Joe Esposito. "It's the middle of the summer."

Bianchi said in an email this week that she had no further information when another official public hearing might be held on the possible legalization of marijuana in New Jersey, which has been under discussion at the state level. Meanwhile, the state is making an effort to establish additional medical marijuana dispensaries throughout New Jersey.

Some of the commenters said at last week's meeting that they are in favor of making medical marijuana available, even as they as they are less likely to support the legalization of recreationall marijuana.

"I think there is a need for medical marijuana," said Nancy D'Andrea, speaking during the public portion of the meeting. She said that CBD oil, derived from the cannabis plant, has helped an elderly parent feel better.

However, she said the township needs to address the already existing problem of marijuana use by township teens, noting that the Juuls vaporizing devices and electronic cigarettes are being used for "a little drug factory" at Ridge High School.

Michael Rubina, another resident, said he did not want to weigh in on marijuana legalization, but he believes that the other issues _ such as racism in how drug criminalization has been enforced _ should be acknowledged.

Rubina said he believes that some of the "facts" being spread about marijuana are flimsy, such as presenting pictures of urban decay resulting from legalization. "I don't want to see this become a script reading for 'Reefer Madness,'" he said, referring to a 1930s American film made to show a series of dramatic events that follow when pushers persuade high schoolers to try marijuana.

Ken Warman, a longtime resident who has also coached local youth organizations, said that medical experts and religious leaders have concluded that marijuana use results in numerous negative consequences, such as slowing the mind and reflexes, and leading to unintelligent decision-making.

Warman, who said he has two degrees in psychology, said that he has received firsthand information and written reports from a grandson who is a police officer in Colorado about the negative impact of legalized marijuana on driving accidents, including fatalities. He said that drug paraphernalia and marijuana in vehicles often indicates when drivers have been driving under the influence.

Legalizing marijuana will only make an existing problem worse, both here in Bernards Township and in cities such as Newark that are already struggling with drug abuse problems among youth, Warman said. He said he believes that legalizing marijuana will make it more difficult to fight the current battle against the opioid crisis. 

Previously, township officials have been given advice, including guidance from the state League of Municipalities, that towns should wait until a specific change in the state law has been proposed to officially respond.

At the meeting, Bianchi herself said that she considers an important aspect of the issue to be zoning. "I want to make sure we have the proper zoning in place," she said, although she declined to offer further details in an email following the meeting other to say that no decision has been made.

Township Committeeman John Carpenter said, "I think we need to take action now." He said that just because underage kids abuse alcohol and marijuana "doesn't mean we have to condone it." 

Carpenter said he wants to see both recreational and medical marijuana facilities prohibited in the township.

Bernardsville proposal to outlaw pot dispensaries in borough

Neighboring Bernardsville already has introduced an ordinance to outlaw the establishment of marijuana dispensaries in that town.

There will be a public hearing on Monday Aug. 12 at Borough Hall on the law, which states that “proposed alternative treatment centers are not compatible with the Borough Land Development Ordinances.”

The New Jersey Compassionate Use Marijuana Act allows for the state Department of Health to issue permits for centers that would provide usable marijuana and related paraphernalia to registered qualifying patients.