WAYNE, NJ — Wednesday night’s Wayne Town Council meeting was one of the longest in recent memory. The council members, administration and concerned members of the public stayed up past 1:00 a.m., and the most hotly debated subject of the evening was Ordinance 16, the proposed ban of all marijuana businesses in Wayne.
The ordinance, introduced in March and up for a vote on Wednesday, was to ban all six categories of marijuana businesses from Wayne Township. This would include cultivation and production, as well as retail dispensaries, whether recreational or medical.
As part of the New Jersey law legalizing the sale and use of recreational marijuana, municipalities across the state have 180 days (from February 22, 2021) to enact their own laws banning all or some of these businesses.
If any municipality does not ban marijuana businesses by August 22, 2021, then they would not be allowed to ban them for the next five years, according to the new state law.
Mayor Chris Vergano was leading the charge on this ordinance and he asked the Director of the Wayne Alliance for the Prevention of Substance Abuse, Robbin Gulino and Police Chief Jack McNiff to provide their opinions to the council on the subject.
Gulino brought up two main points. The first was that today’s marijuana has a much higher THC concentration than most people realize and that she believes that there is no proper dosing information. This has led to “acute intoxication” that she says has put many people in the hospital.
Dr. Henry Balzani backed up Gulino’s point during the public comments portion, later in the meeting. He said, “The amount of THC in the 60s was about 4%. Now, we're talking about the average marijuana cigarette is about 28%. And when you talk about some of the concentrates, they're up to 95% now.”
“The people that wind up going to the emergency room are naive users who use these concentrates at 95% and then have a psychotic-like reaction because of it and do have to go be rushed to the emergency room,” added the doctor.
Gulino’s second point was that the revenues from marijuana sales would not be worth the increased expenses.
“Connecticut has done some studies, and they show that the costs of having legal marijuana would be more than 90% of the revenues in the best projections,” said Gulino. “I’m not sure where people get the idea that a lot of money will be made from this.”
Later in the meeting Vergano made his own points about the revenues from taxing legal marijuana sales.
“From what I'm told and what I've read, an ounce of marijuana sold at these types of stores sells for $275,” explained the Mayor. “We would be entitled to 2% of that sale price or we would get $5.50 per ounce. Imagine the number of ounces that would have to be sold in Wayne Township at these retail distribution centers for any of this money to have any impact on your taxes whatsoever.”
When Police Chief McNiff spoke, he focused on the effect the law would have on Wayne’s youth.
“Members of the Wayne Police Department and I still have significant concerns about the overall effect that this cannabis decriminalization will have on our township,” he said, mentioning that he was speaking also as a Wayne resident and parent.
“Dispensaries opening up within our borders and especially near our schools have the propensity to essentially become attractive nuisances to our teens making their acquisition of cannabis, which is still not legal for those under 21, even easier,” he continued.
McNiff also talked about his concern for impaired driving.
“We, as a Police Department, have already seen an increase in marijuana use inside motor vehicles since the recent decriminalization,” he said.
Next was the public’s turn to comment, and the opinions of the many Wayne residents who called in fell on both sides.
“The council is hyper-focused on young people,” said Gloria Bodker. “As we all are very aware, kids as young as Junior High already know how to get marijuana anytime they want it.”
This was a point made several times during the evening: If kids can get marijuana any time they want it now, then why not have dispensaries in Wayne?
“In Colorado, there was a 32% increase in marijuana-related traffic deaths, one year after they legalized it,” said Jennifer Carr, who supported the ban.
Delores McGuire said, “I don’t think the 60% of the people who voted to legalize marijuana thought through the consequences, especially to our youth.”
“The Mayor said he could not stop the Wawa from going in where the old Nagel’s candy barn because of zoning,” said Marcia Diljak. “How is this different?”
Interestingly, several people from as far away as Eatontown and East Hanover called in to admonish Wayne township for even considering banning the sale of marijuana.
Lefty Grimes said he was fighting for the “sick and dying people with cancer,” and told Wayne that “you're making it harder for people in wheelchairs in your town to get their medicine. You're putting the sick and the dying further back in line.”
“Why are you choosing to kill veterans in your community?” he added.
Another out-of-towner, Huey Giordano, who identified himself as a representative of the United Food Worker’s Union said that Wayne’s ban was “anti-worker” and “an attack on the working class” because union workers would be building the dispensaries that would go in Wayne if the businesses were allowed to open.
When it was the council members turn to discuss the ordinance, Fifth Ward Councilwoman Fran Ritter argued against the ban, while most of the other council members supported it.
“If we allowed for the sale of adult use cannabis and medical cannabis in Wayne, we would be able to regulate the time, place and manner of distribution just like we do for alcohol,” said Ritter.
“Alcohol is a leading cause of addiction and death, yet we're not as outraged by that,” she argued. “We're not outraged that there are liquor stores in shopping centers that we walk past with our children all day.”
Ritter called for Wayne to only allow marijuana businesses to be on Route 23 or on Route 46, away from residential areas.
In the end, she asked that the ordinance be tabled and for Wayne to hold public forums on the subject.
Councilman-At-Large, David Varano provided the argument that likely led to the eventual vote to support the ban.
“This entire ordinance is reversible if we pass this today,” Varano said, next mentioning that the town is allowed to change their minds anytime.
“Alternatively, if we don't take action and our window closes,” he added. “Then we're locked in for five years to that decision.”
The state of New Jersey still does not have all the details worked out on how marijuana businesses will be regulated. Varano is concerned that by missing out on the window that would allow Wayne to place these bans, the township would then be forced to have to accept marijuana businesses for the next five years without yet knowing all the rules and regulations that will eventually shape the industry.
“Why would we want to rush into a decision that hasn't been fully fleshed out by the state yet and not retain that optionality,” Varano said. “It's just poor management; poor decision-making and doesn't make sense from any angle that I can consider.”
Several council members agreed.
“If we're going to participate in anything like this in the future, it needs to be well-thought-out,” said Councilwoman-At-Large Jill Sasso. “We need to consider any of those zoning changes that need to occur. So to me I think sitting by idly by and doing nothing should not be an option for any of us. I don't think that's a prudent way to move forward.”
Sixth Ward Councilman, Jon Ettman asked Township Attorney Brian Chewcaskie who was present at the meeting a clarifying question.
“If we were to vote this ordinance down, are we compelled to issue licenses and allow these businesses to operate?” he asked.
“If you fail to act, then the uses are all permitted,” answered Chewcaskie. “If it's a retail use, it will be permitted in the commercial zones, if its cultivation or wholesale, it will be permitted in the industrial zones.”
“The state has given you an opportunity to opt out,” the lawyer added. “The 180 days expires in August, however that doesn't preclude you from opting back in. The recommendation that I've been making is that if you want to permit something, that's fine. If you're not sure, you better opt out.”
The Wayne Town Council followed this advice and the ordinance passed 8-1 with Ritter as the only ‘no’ vote.
Wayne will, for now at least, not allow any marijuana businesses to open up in town.