RARITAN, NJ - As Trenton grapples with the cannabis conundrum, municipalities throughout the state are struggling to determine whether distribution of weed at Alternative Treatment Centers, or marijuana dispensaries, in their towns are a good fit.
In Raritan, the question first arose in June 2018, when the council was approached by a business owner hoping to open an ATC in the borough.
At that time, most of the surrounding Somerset County towns, including Bridgewater, turned down the idea with an outright ban of the sale of cannabis.
The Raritan council chose not to rush to judgment. Instead they wanted to look at the big picture and to understand what, if any, the benefits of a medical marijuana dispensary would be for the borough.
The next step in that process was to have the Municipal Land Use Board look at the issue from the realm of zoning. Specifically, the land use board was asked to identify potential sites and amend the municipal zoning ordinance to facilitate a possible ATC.
In response, land use board chairman Richard Miller formed an ad hoc committee in July 2018 to research which business districts or zones in town could work for that type of business. The committee is headed by vice chairman William Cunningham and includes Miller, board member Adele Goetsch and councilman Nicholas Carra.
“I felt it was important for me to be on the sub-committee because I was able to provide them a go-between with the governing body,” Carra said.
The council requested the land use board prepare requirements notwithstanding the daunting unknowns regarding such facilities.
“The MLU board did its best, and has agreed to send zoning requirements to back to the council,” said Mayor Charles McMullin, who is also a member of the board.
The next step will be for the borough council to make a policy decision.
As Raritan was weighing its options, the effort to legalize recreational marijuana statewide collapsed during the 2018-2019 legislative year. Therefore, Raritan put the issue of a possible marijuana dispensary in town on hold.
Adding to the confusion was Gov. Phil Murphy’s end run around the issue. Since the legislator wouldn’t legalize recreational marijuana, the governor used the health department to add the condition of anxiety to the list of ailments for which a cannabis prescription could be written.
”We are very sympathetic to the medical needs of our fellow residents and even those in adjacent municipalities,” McMullin said. “However, at this time there are many important yet unknown aspects to locating an ATC facility in the borough. I have been asked by residents to wait until we have some experience with ATCs, especially in light of the substantial broadening of permitted medical conditions, including anxiety, by the state.”
“As a consequence, it is logical to recognize that the number of eligible customers at an ATC will markedly increase as the list of approved medical conditions expands,” he added.
The council has discussed, debated and waited with no change in state law imminent. That left the land use board questioning whether its mandate from the council was still viable.
On Oct. 8, Carra brought the issue back to the council, asking whether the governing body was still in favor of the land use board providing zoning for a medical dispensary. The council's answer was a unanimous yes.
In addition to concerns about the impact of parking and traffic, the council is also looking into whether allowing a medical dispensary would grandfather businesses already operational into automatically becoming recreational marijuana dispensaries.
Currently, there is a plan in Trenton to put the issue on the 2020 ballot in the form of a referendum so voters can decide the issue.
Raritan resident Susan Mosca-Grosso said she would like the same option. Mosca-Grosso has spoken at least twice at council meetings asking for the governing body to move cautiously, and has requested that, before the council makes its decision, a local referendum goes on the ballot to let residents decide if this is something they want for their town.
There are presently six ATC’s operating in New Jersey. Another six applications recently have been approved, and it is expected many more are forthcoming. “The dilemma that has compounded the siting issue is that, in two years, there will be approximately two dozen ATCs in New Jersey,” McMullin said. “That represents only one per county. The challenge is how does the borough select possible sites, determine minimum size for such a facility and appropriate sufficient off-street parking when there is no history in New Jersey with ATCs.”
“Obviously, this challenge is magnified by the reality that the ATCs are regional in nature, and Raritan would, in effect, be the ATC for all of Somerset County,” he added.
Additionally, the state objective to allow online orders for pickup at the ATCs further compounds the task of proper land use regulations.
“Simply put, we have no experience whatsoever regarding a standalone ATC,” said McMullin.
Waiting in the wings for a decision at the state level and in Raritan, Sarah Trent, a local businesswoman, has asked the borough for a resolution supporting her plan to open an ATC. She said approval from the governing body could expedite the state application process by showing a lack of opposition from the town.
At the moment, how a state referendum will fare is still uncertain, although slowly, public support seems to be building in favor of the issue. In 2015, the Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics conducted a public opinion poll of New Jerseyans, asking whether they supported legalizing, taxing and regulating the use of marijuana.
Among respondents, 33 percent "strongly supported" the idea, 26 percent "somewhat supported" the idea, 12 percent "somewhat opposed" the idea and 27 percent "strongly opposed" the idea.
In 2018, a Reuters-Eagleton poll showed similar results, with 58 percent supporting and 37 percent opposing the complete legalization of the possession and personal use of recreational marijuana.
In early 2019, a Monmouth University poll revealed 62 percent of those questioned said they support legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Around a third of those surveyed — 32 percent — said they oppose legalization.
Yet while support for the theory of recreational marijuana use is strong, the next step – the support for the current legalization bill – is a little weaker. Of the 604 people questioned in the Monmouth poll, a clear majority said they support legalization, but just half said they approve of the legalization bill, which would permit those 21 years old and older to purchase and consume small amounts of cannabis from licensed distributors.
Another 34 percent said they thought that was a bad idea, while 17 percent had no opinion.