BRIDGEWATER, NJ - Bridgewater Township residents seem divided on the issue of legalized recreational marijuana within the town’s borders, particularly in public places.

The township council, however, is firm in its opposition.

The council introduced four separate ordinances March 18 that would prohibit cannabis operations, marijuana establishments, consumption of cannabis on public property and the use of recreational cannabis in Bridgewater. The public hearing on all four ordinances is scheduled for the council’s next virtual meeting April 5.

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More than a dozen residents commented on the ordinances, with some supporting the council’s stance and others unsure of why the ban is being supported following the state legalization.

Resident Dan Sherwood asked the council to simply say “no” to marijuana sales, while resident Bao Dnguyen said that the town’s residents have to live together, and that the legal ban of marijuana had failed.

“I urge you to find an alternative solution,” Dnguyen said.

Resident Betty Chan asked the council to ban marijuana in public places, and thanked the governing body for its efforts, while resident Fae Cushing said she has concerns about secondhand marijuana smoke and what it contains.

Resident Jessica Wolf, a non-marijuana user, said she was speaking to protest the ordinances, as she said there had been no sufficient evidence by the township to support the ban. She also said she was concerned with the legislation, and felt that the mayor and council were not protecting residents, but rather oppressing them.

Bridgewater Mayor Matthew Moench said these ordinances are designed around the regulation of recreational marijuana by the state.

He said that, a few years back, there had been a pre-emptive municipal ban on recreational marijuana in town, when the state was “still up in the air” on the matter. He reiterated that Bridgewater had made its own protections in advance, and that the state legislature should have really handled the matter “instead of passing the buck to residents.”

New Jersey legalized recreational marijuana for adults 21 and over in February.

Moench said the state’s legalization allows individuals to use, possess, sell and deliver certain amounts of marijuana, with the state hoping to create a cannabis industry.

“The legislation, as passed, is harmful,” he said.

Moench added that the four proposed municipal ordinances are a small step “in what the state allows us to do.” They are also not a creative end run by the township, but rather something that had been promoted by the League of Municipalities, he said.

Moench added that the township has six months in which to create a ban, or else it cannot do anything on the matter for a period of five years.

The mayor said the state’s cannabis regulation will take some time to fully enact, and that legislation “allows us to ban it now.” He also said the township could revisit the issue in the future and approve recreational marijuana, but not the other way around.

Moench further explained that the proposed municipal ordinances do not prohibit the use of recreational marijuana in personal homes or vehicles, and that the township lacks the power to prohibit it in those places. 

Specifically, he said, the third ordinance would place limitations on cannabis “to prohibit smoking, vaping and aerosolizing or otherwise consuming cannabis or cannabis items on public property.” The fourth ordinance would amend the township’s municipal code “by adding recreational cannabis use to the prohibited conduct contemplated,” he said.

Moench added that such strictures would not permit individuals to smoke marijuana in public places, much like they now are prohibited from drinking alcohol in those same places. He said the ordinances are the town’s attempt at balancing the needs of individuals who use recreational marijuana in their own homes, with others who don’t want marijuana in public places “and the negative impacts that go with it.”

Perhaps chief among those negative impacts, as mentioned during the public comments, is the odor of burnt marijuana, and the length of time that odor can linger in the air.

Regarding potential tax revenues that some individuals said Bridgewater would be missing out on by not legalizing recreational marijuana, Moench said those numbers are unknown, and that it is his stance that the potentially negative impacts exceed the potential tax revenue. He also said that if he is wrong, the township could “always go back and allow it.”

Councilman Howard Norgalis briefly brought up the issue of medical marijuana, and said it is his understanding that the proposed ordinances do not inhibit the use of medical marijuana “by anyone.”

Councilman Timothy Ring,said he had attended a virtual meeting of the League of Municipalities earlier that day, which had spent some 90 minutes on the legalization of marijuana. He added that Bridgewater has until Aug. 21 to allow a ban on recreational marijuana, one day before the Cannabis Regulatory Commission is to submit its recommended policies regarding the number of cannabis facilities and the like.

Ring added that Gov. Phil Murphy had said the state would “stumble” to go forward and find a better place regarding recreational marijuana, something that the councilman said he found “concerning.” He also said the state was asking the township to make a decision today, without rules, which Ring felt was “premature of the state.”

Ring pointed out that the League of Municipalities has established a cap, whereby the township cannot tax more than 2% of retail (marijuana) sales, while not counting police and other associated costs.

Councilman Michael Kirsh noted that recreational marijuana is now legal in New Jersey, and that the impact of dispensaries is currently unknown. He said the first two proposed ordinances mark the “wisest approach,” while the third and fourth ones will have “no effect” on marijuana in homes.

Norgalis said he supports all four measures, and added it is “truly a quality of life issue.”

Pedroso said he concurred with his fellow council members, and thanked Moench for bringing the matter forward.

“Bridgewater is a family township, and we care deeply about the quality of life,” Pedroso said. “It’s not for sale.”

With regard to an earlier argument from a resident about Bridgewater residents not having a local place to purchase cannabis products, Pedroso said local adults could make such purchases in other nearby towns. 

Pedroso also pointed out that Bridgewater doesn’t have gun sales or gentleman’s clubs, either, and added that is also “the quality of life that residents want.” He said he hopes to leave his own children a township that is “as great as it was for me,” and said he supported the ordinances.

The introduction of each ordinance was approved unanimously.