WEST ORANGE, NJ — In response to the Jake Honig Compassionate Use Medical Cannabis (Marijuana) Act, which was signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy in July 2019, the West Orange Township Council and West Orange Board of Education recently collaborated on a special meeting to discuss the legislation and possible changes to West Orange’s zoning.

The law—named after 7-year-old Howell resident “Jake the Tank” Honig, who died in January 2018 after battling a rare and aggressive form of brain cancer—expands New Jersey’s Medicinal Marijuana Program (MMP) by providing more access to medical marijuana for adults and minors with qualifying conditions; increases the amount of marijuana given from two to three ounces per month; and provides additional guidelines for dispensaries and the health care professionals who are allowed to authorize use of medical cannabis.

Members of the New Jersey Assembly and Gov. Murphy were inspired to expand the program after Michael Honig, Jake’s father, testified that medicinal cannabis allowed his son to live as a normal child, excelling at his education and in sports until his death.

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The West Orange meeting—which began a nuanced conversation not only about the future of health care in New Jersey and, by extension, the Township of West Orange, through the eyes of professional panelists, concerned school administrators and the community at large—also looked at what changes to the township’s zoning landscape would mean for teenagers as well as older community members in need of the life-changing drug.

“I organized this town hall discussion because we were presented with a draft ordinance to change the zoning laws in West Orange to comply with the state of New Jersey’s law,” said Councilwoman Cindy Matute-Brown, who moderated the discussion and was quick to clarify that this meeting was not advocating for the legalization of marijuana, but was simply meant to discuss expanding patient access to medicinal cannabis. “This was my way of bringing your voices, your concerns, your questions to my council colleagues in order to help guide how we change or amend the ordinance that’s existing.”

Mark Moon, a member of the township’s legal department who helped draft the proposed ordinance, explained that he was asked to “look at the municipal code to see if it complies [with the state],” and reiterated that the main purpose of the approved statute is to show that “New Jersey recognizes marijuana as a legitimate treatment.”

“Now it becomes the job of the council to sit down and communicate—figure out the wheres, the whys, the whens, the hows of the ordinance,” said Moon, adding that the proposed ordinance would determine the possible location of certain facilities.

He noted that the goal would be to keep them away from residential areas and schools and placing them in “legal consumption zones,” which the township would determine as designated areas “in which patients are allowed to go.”

These facilities, recognized by the state, include: dispensaries, which provide the product directly to the patient; cultivators, which grow or create cannabis products; manufacturers, which serve as wholesalers and distributors; and alternative treatment centers, which are a combination of the three previous categories.

Joining Moon on the panel were medical marijuana experts Monica Taing, PharmD and Board Member of Doctors for Cannabis; Hugh O’Beirne, President of the NJCIA; and Charlana McKeithen, Executive Director for Garden State Norml, a group that is working to reform marijuana laws.

O’Beirne explained that the MMP, which has gone through its second expansion under Gov. Phil Murphy, currently serves more than 50,000 in New Jersey, which he said is a significant increase from the 17,000 people enrolled when Murphy took office.

“Approximately 3,000 patients are being added to the program every month,” said O’Beirne.

Taing, also known as New Jersey’s "first cannabis pharmacist,” added that the program’s growth is also due to its expansion of the qualifying conditions for a healthcare professional to certify a patient’s need for medicinal marijuana.

All program participants are also issued a medical marijuana card, which currently costs $100 unless covered by a subsidized health plan.

However, although the supply of medical marijuana has grown and more accessible, O’Beirne noted that because New Jersey has “the most expensive medication in the nation,” more needs to be done to bring down the costs by opening the market further.

According to Taing, medical marijuana is currently not prescribed because it is classified as a Schedule I drug, or one that has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” according to the DEA. It also is one of the few forms of medicine that is subject to sales tax, which is expected to be phased out over the next three years prior being completely eliminated in July 2022, she said.

Moon also added that although the sales tax will be eliminated, the municipality would be able to place up to a two-percent transfer tax on medical marijuana.

Following the panel discussion, West Orange Superintendent of Schools Dr. J. Scott Cascone—who has 25 years of experience dealing with substance abuse issues in schools—cautioned the township council on considering expansion of dispensaries and other marijuana facilities within the township.

“With all due respect to folks who need it, I see two sides,” he said. “[On] one side, I see 2,500 people who are getting help; on the other side, I see 2,500 homes which are now homes that have marijuana in them and 2,500 homes that might potentially have children in those homes and might have access to that marijuana just like they had access to the Oxycontin from the medicine cabinet.”

He explained that although there is not necessarily much similarity between Oxycontin and marijuana, society “saw Oxycontin oftentimes prescribed legally” and that many believe that “the complicity of irresponsible physicians is what ultimately fueled that [opioid] epidemic.”

“Where the similarity is, is ultimately, to some extent, we’re dependent on the integrity and professionalism of the physicians,” said Cascone, who asked the council members in attendance to “err on the side of the welfare of the children in the community.”

In a separate statement, the superintendent said that as long as today’s teens are part of a culture and a society that is focused on the “party mentality”—with alcohol advocacy and advertising at the forefront of that branding—marijuana use will become bundled into “a lifestyle and way of living.”

“It concerns me as an educator, as someone who’s trying to help kids lead clean and sober and healthy lives,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s in their hands [but] my ask of the town council is to understand the educator’s perspective on it and to be judicious on how they’re creating the ordinance.”

In response, Taing explained that while many health practitioners hold the same concerns around legalization, it is important to also realize that marijuana “is the most widely used illicit substance around the world.”

“In the underground market today, it’s super easy for kids to access cannabis,” she said

Taing added, however, that there have been “no recorded overdoses from cannabis alone,” since the botanical flower is not as harmful as alcohol. The exception, she said, is from manmade “synthetic cannabinoids.”

She also cautioned the public against supporting “unproven propaganda,” including the idea that cannabis is a “gateway drug,” as the NIH explains that “the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use ‘harder’ substances.” She concluded that more needs to be done to educate the public about the drug.

Aware that Montclair has a dispensary that opened in 2012 despite having an ordinance that prohibits the sale of marijuana, West Orange school board member Terry Trigg-Scales asked whether there were lessons to be learned from the neighboring town.

Moon explained that “it’s tough to use [Montclair] as a model” because it “just means that the council didn’t update their municipal code, so it’s tough to use them as a model.”

Other towns such as Fairfield and Roseland have also adopted ordinances prohibiting the sale of medicinal and recreational marijuana, but Moon expressed his opinion that it is difficult to justify prohibiting marijuana facilities in town based on the set up of the state’s statute.

“In order to prohibit any facility in town, you’re going to need a pretty compelling rationale,” he said. “So, simply not wanting medical marijuana in town would be a very difficult position to take [because] the statute recognizes it as a legitimate, legal, recognized form of healthcare.”

In addition to the residents who are worried about the security risks that these facilities will pose, other residents have also spoken in favor of having them in town. One such resident was Mario Gutierrez, a Class of 2005 West Orange High School graduate who currently purchases medical marijuana in the form of lotions and tinctures from a dispensary in Cranbury in order to help him cope with back pain sustained in a motorcycle accident.

Click HERE to learn more information from the Division of Medicinal Marijuana under the New Jersey Department of Health.