EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - The Marijuana Ordinance Forum, sponsored by the East Brunswick Elks and the East Brunswick Municipal Alliance was held at 7 p.m. Tuesday evening, February 26, 2019 at the Community Arts Center located at 721 Cranbury Road.
The event was moderated by legal and legislative expert Attorney Darren M. Pfiel and featured Mr. Frank Greenagel as the keynote speaker. Mr. Greenagel currently runs the Family Program at College Recovery in New Jersey and is also an adjunct professor at the Rutgers School of Social Work and instructor at the Center of Alcohol Studies.
Mayor Brad Cohen, praising both the East Brunswick Elks and the Municipal Alliance for sponsoring the event, posed a number of questions that the forum sought to answer regarding social justice issues, law enforcement, and the effect of recreational marijuana taxation on the municipal budget. Providing examples of the types of decisions that East Brunswick faces if recreational marijuana is legalized in New Jersey, Mayor Cohen stated that “East Brunswick has a right to decide what’s right for East Brunswick.”
Currently, there are nearly 60 towns in New Jersey that have banned marijuana dispensaries, including Jamesburg, Old Bridge, and Spotswood.
In his opening remarks, Mr. Pfiel provided a status update on S2703 New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory and Expungement Aid Modernization Act, upon which an agreement has reportedly been made between Governor Phil Murphy and state lawmakers. Also highlighted by Mr. Pfiel were key elements of the legislation, including civil rights concerns, the creation of a Cannabis Regulatory Committee that would also oversee the state’s medical marijuana program and regulate personal use for persons 21 years of age and older, and the establishment of an expungement relief program for those who have been convicted of marijuana-related offenses. If the bill passes, the state would impose a $42 per ounce tax on recreational marijuana and would allow municipalities to impose a 2 percent tax on marijuana dispensaries in their towns.
Mr. Greenagel’s speech centered on concerns specific to municipalities and the impact recreational marijuana legalization could have on them. Citing nationwide statistics, as well as data from states such as Colorado and Washington where recreational marijuana is already legal, Mr. Greenagel provided context to the questions that Mayor Cohen had posed earlier in the evening, while addressing many of the questions to which residents had come to receive answers.
Zoning and signage, tax revenue, and crime were all front and center issues during Mr. Greenagel’s keynote and were also the focus of the questions that residents submitted during the Q&A portion of the meeting.
As a result of changes made to the zoning laws last year, marijuana dispensaries would only be able to operate in industrial zones within the township. However, it is unclear who holds the ultimate authority in approving the exact location. “Do neighboring businesses and landlords have input or is it up to the municipality to decide?” asked Mr. Greenagel, before announcing that the state would not offer guidance to municipalities on signage or zoning.
How this bill could help alleviate the tax burden on residents and cut costs for the township was a central issue for those in attendance. Based on a report by marijuana advocacy groups, the state could generate $300 million in tax revenue by legalizing recreational marijuana. It is not certain how much revenue a local 2 percent tax could generate but by one estimate provided by Mr. Greenagel, the township could garner $10,500 from sales, whereas data from states where marijuana is legal suggest higher amounts, such as the $71 million that was raised for local governments in Colorado in 2017.
Mr. Greenagel acknowledged initial law enforcement costs associated with legalization including the training of police officers in the role of Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) as well as the cost of marijuana DUI testing for which there does not yet exist a reliable, objective test.
Pointing to the statistics that are available, the fear that recreational marijuana legalization leads to increased use among teenagers has not materialized nor has a significant rise in crime in states where it has been legalized. However, there are conflicting reports regarding the idea that marijuana legalization has led to an increase in driving accidents and emergency room visits as well as an uptick in youth marijuana use in Colorado in 2014-2015.
Despite the limited amount of data that is available, in part because of the short amount of time that marijuana has been legal in the reporting states, the information that is available, the expertise of professionals in the field, as well as input from members of the community can assist municipalities as they weigh the advantages and disadvantages of allowing marijuana-based businesses to operate in their communities.