BRIDGEWATER, NJ - A public discussion on medical marijuana, more properly known as cannabis, took up more than an hour at the Bridgewater Township Council meeting Monday as out-of-town residents pleaded for a dispensary in town and council members said they need more guidelines.
The subject had been broached by out-of-town speakers at the council’s previous meeting March 19, primarily about Bridgewater utilizing its more-or-less centralized location to becoming a potential home for a new authorized medical dispensary for cannabis. Speakers that night pleaded with the council to consider housing a dispensary in town – and it was more of the same during the second discussion, although the council ultimately took no formal action regarding cannabis or toward establishing a dispensary.
Council vice president Matthew Moench said the story started back in January when New Jersey’s new governor, Phil Murphy, made legalized cannabis a staple of his governorship, after making it a cornerstone of his gubernatorial campaign. Moench said he wasn’t sure if Murphy currently had enough votes in the state legislature to get the measure passed, and the councilman also asked if Bridgewater indeed wanted to sell cannabis within its borders.
As to why the town should entertain the matter of legalized cannabis now, when it was not a state law at present, Moench said the reasons were twofold. The first was to possibly inform public discussion, while the second was concerned with zoning distances, in that the township couldn’t go back and later change zoning, ostensibly to suit or dismiss a particular place.
Putting something on the books now regarding cannabis, said Moench, “protects us (because we) have something on record.”
Moench said he believes it is also a freedom issue, although individuals are still not allowed to grow marijuana in their own backyards, which he said would defeat the purpose of the industry. He added that medical marijuana is a state issue, and that Murphy has made lot of changes to his program recently.
Moench said township attorney William Savo’s office could provide a memo if the council wished to take action, such as a resolution with no force of law, or ratification of an ordinance like some other towns have already done, with some establishing blanket prohibitions of marijuana, medicinal or recreational.
The council permitted public comments, which entertained no less than a dozen speakers, all of whom live outside Bridgewater. Several, such as Lefty Grimes, Jeff Oakes, Hugh Giordano and Jeff King, had spoken at the previous Bridgewater council meeting to advocate for medical marijuana usage.
Comments ranged from using cannabis to ease various forms of pain and suffering, to it being a safer and more viable alternative to alcohol and other substances. Some emphasized Bridgewater possibly providing another medical marijuana dispensary in a state that currently boasts less than a half-dozen of them, and added that cannabis is growing as a burgeoning and profitable industry.
Council president Christine Henderson Rose said it is an extremely complex subject, and perhaps even two separate issues – with medicinal usage balanced against recreational use – and that the council has to decide where it stands.
Moench thanked all those individuals who showed up or spoke at the meeting.
“There’s some issues to work through,” he said of the subject matter as a whole.
Councilman Filipe Pedroso thanked the speakers for both their advocacy and their respect, and said he was moved by their stories. He added that the situation is not a complicated one for him, and explained that the main issue is what Bridgewater residents want.
Pedroso pointed out that no one from Bridgewater had spoken, adding that he strongly believes town residents don't want a dispensary in town, and said he will support what the residents want.
“Our constituents don’t want the sale of marijuana in town,” said Pedroso, adding that he spoke to Bridgewater residents all the time.
He added that there are many other towns near and around Bridgewater that could possibly do the job.
Moench questioned how to regulate medical versus recreational sales of cannabis, and whether a dispensary would be allowed to sell both. He said that if the town passes a restriction regarding cannabis, it could always relax that stricture later on.
“You can’t zone back out,” he said.
Pedroso said the governing body has a responsibility to be proactive, while township administrator James Naples said Mayor Dan Hayes is waiting on the state law.
Councilman Howard Norgalis told those in attendance that he appreciated them coming a long way to share their stories.
“There’s a lot more understanding about the issues,” he said.
Norgalis said he could support cannabis that is prescribed by a doctor and distributed at a dispensary, but not a store or something similar where it is sold to be used recreationally.
“I’m more than happy to listen,” he added.
Councilman Allen Kurdyla also thanked those who spoke, and said he is sure that everyone in the audience can think of someone in their own lives that is suffering, and who would have an interest in a local dispensary.
“I’d like to find out what Woodbridge is doing,” he added, home of the he Garden State Dispensary.
Savo said the dispensaries could be authorized, but that towns “still need a license from the state.” He said there is a bill pending to allow a state exemption for cannabis.
Moench said that if the township passes an ordinance that allows distributing cannabis, but then a state law is passed against it, the council could simply go back and change the ordinance.
Rose said she heard the requests for the exploration of medicinal cannabis, and felt that was also the prerogative of the majority of the council. She said she didn’t think she agrees with Pedroso, about what Bridgewater residents might or might not want, and wondered what would happen at the state level.
“I don’t see a lot of activity in Trenton around this issue,” she said.
Rose added that there seems to be no fast-tracking of the topic, and said she wants to see more coming out of the state capital in detail.
Moench said the council could pass a resolution against recreational cannabis usage or sales, or at least draft one.
“I want to see more of the facts,’ said Norgalis.
Kurdyla said he wants to see medicinal usage prioritized over recreational, to “separate the two.”
Rose said the council will continue to gather information regarding cannabis usage, to see how it fits “into the culture of the town.” She also encouraged the advocates to continue their work.
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