FLEMINGTON, NJ – As multiple indicators suggest New Jersey is inching its way towards legalizing recreational marijuana, the notion of legal pot is on Borough Council’s radar.
A pair of companion bills is already in the state Legislature. Both the Senate bill (S830) and Assembly bill (A1348) would legalize “possession and personal use of small amounts of marijuana for persons age 21 and over” and would create a “Division of Marijuana Enforcement and licensing structure.”
The “topic is rapidly coming to the fore,” said Mayor Phil Greiner at Monday’s Borough Council meeting. “Everyone knows Gov. Murphy in his election campaign said that he is in favor of legalizing marijuana ... I think at this time we’re best served by understanding what some of the issues are going to be.”
The state’s League of Municipalities has formed a task force to look at how legal marijuana would affect towns, Greiner said, and he’s serving on a committee that he said will examine the “economic impact on towns” of legal pot.
An event on the topic has been scheduled in Trenton next week for elected officials; both the mayor and Councilperson Betsy Driver said they plan to attend.
On March 5, the state Assembly's committee on Oversight, Reform & Federal Relations is holding a forum to allow the public to speak on marijuana legalization.
Greiner said he doesn’t “have a sense of how people on this Council or people in our town feel about this topic” and that holding a town hall-style meeting – with experts from both sides of the issue – might be a good idea. He said that Flemington Police Chief jerry Rotella told him that the state Police Chiefs Association believes there is “not clear enough direction from the legislature yet” to have an opinion.
“This is all about generating revenue for the state,” Greiner said. Under the current bills, there would be a “five year phase-in period for fees,” he said, where the state would collect a 7 percent fee on marijuana sales in the first year, and then ramp up to 25 percent by the fifth year. A municipality’s revenue would go from 1 percent to 3 percent during the same period, the mayor said.
For those who might want legal marijuana sales in the borough, Greiner said, the Planning Board will need to consider zoning.
“Where do we want them or not want them?” Greiner asked about shops that might sell the drug.
Greiner said his own view “is to consider public safety issues first” such as driving safety, or concerns about how marijuana might find its way into local schools. He noted that there is presently no “curbside testing” that police can use to determine if a driver is under the influence of marijuana.
Greiner and several other councilpersons said they’ve heard from only one resident on the topic, and that person opposed allowing pot sales in Flemington.
Councilperson Brooke Warden said she heard from a developer in Livingston who was interested in building an 8- to 10-acre marijuana greenhouse here. She referred him to the Flemington Community Partnership business group.
Borough Attorney Barry Goodman said Flemington is not the first Hunterdon municipality to consider the consequences of legal pot. His firm – Woodbridge-based Greenbaum, Rowe, Smith & Davis – drafted an ordinance that was introduced last week in High Bridge. If approved, it would prohibit head shops, vape shops, distribution, manufacturing of marijuana or paraphernalia in the borough, Goodman said. He called the proposal “pretty comprehensive” but said he didn’t know if it would be adopted.
“They wanted to introduce it to open up discussion,” Goodman said.
Driver said that there is evidence that suggests property values increase where there is legal marijuana.
There is “pretty good evidence for the health value, particularly when it comes to opioid addiction,” Driver said about pot. “Marijuana can reduce opioid issues that we have.”
She added that, “Certainly nobody that I’m aware of, in the history of the world, has ... overdosed from smoking too much marijuana.”
Driver also cautioned against dismissing the potential economic benefits of legal weed.
“One to 3 percent of revenue is nothing to sneeze at. ... it could increase our revenue,” she said. “We would be foolish to discount the potential benefit that it may bring.”
Driver also drew an analogy between marijuana and alcohol. “We’ve spent the past several years bemoaning the lack of a liquor license on Main Street,” Driver said. “The public safety issues of driving notwithstanding, I think that to bemoan the lack of a place to get a drink, while not wanting a place to go buy some marijuana is hypocritical. I do believe there’s not that much difference.”
Councilperson John Gorman didn’t take a position, but said he knew a cancer patient who benefited from the pain-reducing effect of medical marijuana. Councilperson Marc Hain, who works in a power plant, said that his employer’s position is that even if marijuana becomes legal, its employees “can’t partake.”
Resident Tony Previte told officials that they should consider what surrounding communities decide about pot. If Raritan Township and Lambertville both allow its sale, for example, “It’s ridiculous if you say ‘no,’ ” he said.
“From a moral perspective I have an issue,” with legal marijuana, said resident Robert Shore. But from his political “libertarian perspective,” he said he’d be inclined to accept it “and get the economic benefit.”
“People are already buying and selling marijuana in the borough of Flemington,” Driver said. “People are already smoking marijuana.”