• Joseph F. Berenato

180-day countdown for local marijuana


Municipalities within the state of New Jersey were given until August 21—180 days—to enact ordinances or regulations governing the number of cannabis establishments. (Courtesy Photo)

HAMMONTON—On February 22, Governor Phil Murphy signed into law A-21—“The New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory, Enforcement Assistance, and Marketplace Modernization Act”—which legalized and outlined regulations for cannabis use and possession for adults 21 years and older.


According to the legislation, municipalities within the state of New Jersey were given until August 21—180 days—to enact ordinances or regulations “governing the number of cannabis establishments, distributors or delivery services, as well as the location, manner and times of operation of establishments and distributors, but the time of operation of delivery services shall be subject only to regulation by the commission; and establishing civil penalties for violation of an ordinance or regulation governing the number of cannabis establishments, distributors or delivery services that may operate in such municipality, or their location, manner or the times of operations.”


Additionally, according to the legislation—provided such an ordinance is passed within the 180-day timeframe, a municipality may “prohibit the operation of any one or more classes of cannabis establishment or cannabis distributors or cannabis delivery services, but not the delivery of cannabis items and related supplies by a delivery service, within the jurisdiction of the municipality through the enactment of an ordinance.”


The failure to enact such an ordinance during the given time frame “shall result in any class of cannabis establishment or a cannabis distributor or cannabis delivery service that is not prohibited from operating within the municipality as being permitted to operate therein.”


“At the end of a five-year period following the initial failure of a municipality to enact an ordinance prohibiting the operation of one or more classes of cannabis establishment or cannabis distributors or cannabis delivery services, and every five-year period thereafter following a failure to enact a prohibiting ordinance, the municipality shall again be permitted to prohibit the future operation of any one or more classes of cannabis establishment or cannabis distributors or cannabis delivery services through the enactment of an ordinance during a new 180-day period,” the legislation states.


However, any such ordinance will be prospective, and “not apply to any cannabis establishment, distributor or delivery service operating in the municipality prior to the enactment of the ordinance.”


“The town is evaluating the various options, and will make a decision before the 180-day timeframe,” Michael Malinsky, Hammonton’s town solicitor, said.


Councilman Thomas Gribbin said that Mayor Stephen DiDonato and the members of town council have been in contact with Malinsky regarding the legislation.


“He has represented that there are members within his firm that have experience and have been advising clients in other municipalities with regard to the law. We’re interested in having a more detailed discussion on what this means for our town,” Gribbin said.


Recreational marijuana legalization began on November 3, 2020, when voters in the state of New Jersey overwhelmingly approved New Jersey Public Question 1, the Marijuana Legalization Amendment. According to information available on the website of the Atlantic County Clerk, the total certified votes cast from Hammonton were 4,313 in favor and 2,383 against.


“The town, the county and the state voted in favor, two to one, which means that, as an elected official, it’s my responsibility to do my due diligence into this issue effectively ... Our community has voted in favor of it, and I believe it’s my responsibility—and mayor and council’s responsibility—to take a deep dive into it, and show that it could be, or would not be, successful,” Councilman Jonathan Oliva said.


Gribbin concurred.


“Our town voted overwhelmingly for it, and I think that’s an important aspect: to listen to the concerns of the residents. That was to approve the plan; I know there are other aspects about what that means, as far as dispensaries and the like, and growth. I don’t know if the vote in favor also meant the vote in favor of having dispensaries, having growth; I think we still need to look at all of those aspects. It’s certainly not going to be lost on me that it was overwhelmingly approved in our town, in our county and in our state,” Gribbin said.


Councilman William Olivo conceded the results of the vote, but questioned what precisely that meant for the town.


“I know the people in the town voted for it; I think it was about a 2,000 vote margin in the town of Hammonton, but did the people know what they were voting for in that respect? I just want to get a little bit more research behind me before I make a decision as to what we should be doing with it, and not make a full decision at this point in time ... What could we and can’t we do with the new cannabis law, and what should we and should we not do with this new law? It comes down to that,” Olivo said.


Councilman Sam Rodio agreed with his colleague.


“This needs a lot of research. I know the way the vote went in November; I get that, but this needs some research and know-how before we can say anything,” Rodio said.


Councilman Steven Furgione also said that more research was required, and that public safety was at the forefront of his concerns.


“I understand, and I get what the voters did, but I need to understand the ramifications for the town going forward, and how it relates to public safety. That’s what my decision will be based on. It won’t be based on just because the residents voted for it. We’re responsible for public safety here, and that trumps everything else, in my opinion, and I just want to grasp it, understand it, have a good conversation with the chief, really have a conversation with our in-house attorney and understand all this. Whether I’m for it or against it, I’ve got to be able to explain it to the residents. I know it got passed, and I want to really just understand it,” Furgione said.


DiDonato said that public safety was his primary concern as well, particularly in regards to potential cannabis growers.


“My number one job, as mayor of a community, is safety of its people, so I’d want to make sure I keep everybody safe, whether they’re somebody who’s a neighbor, somebody who lives across town, one of my police officers; I have to keep everybody safe. I have to know that that grower can handle what they are proposing. This is not growing blueberries or corn; this is growing something a little different,” DiDonato said.


DiDonato said that, should the town decide to allow growers, he would have questions for said growers to unsure that they “hit all the marks for safety.”


“Is it going to be inside? Is it going to be outside? Inside or outside, but especially outside, how are you going to secure the facility? How are you going to keep the employees, your product safe, how are you going to keep your neighbors safe? All those questions. Is it indoors? Is it in a building under fluorescent lights? I’ve been reading a lot, but I’m not 100 percent sure how they grow it indoors. I’m gathering it seems like fluorescent lighting, and they do it, but is the whole property going to be fenced in? Will there be active guards 24/7? These will all be questions I’ll want answered,” DiDonato said.


DiDonato said that, while he would entertain the possibility of allowing growers in the town of Hammonton, he could not support retail sales or distribution in the town of Hammonton.


“My thoughts on cannabis are simply this: I’d rather not see a dispensary in the town limits. I’m open to discussing possibly if a grower has security, depending on the security of it. There’ll be a lot of concerns, and there would be a lot of questions. But a dispensary? I absolutely would rather, I couldn’t support in the town limits, but a grower we’d have to talk about ... That’s where I’m at. I’d rather not see a dispensary, but, as far as a grower, we’ll talk about it and see what council wants to do,” DiDonato said.


Councilman Joseph Giralo was in agreement with the mayor.


“I have to look at the law for growing, because I would never hurt our farmers—although I would never want to go from the Blueberry Capital of the World to the Marijuana Capital of the World. If we allow a couple, does it approve that they’re unlimited? I don’t know. I have to study that. I will be doing my due diligence, but, as far as distribution, the answer is no. I’ve never changed my mind, and I’m not going to change my mind,” Giralo said.


One of the provisions of the legislation allows municipalities to levy an Optional Local Cannabis Transfer Tax and User Tax “on the sale of cannabis or cannabis items by a cannabis establishment that is located in the municipality.”


“Each municipality shall set its own rate or rates, but in no case shall a rate exceed: two percent of the receipts from each sale by a cannabis cultivator; two percent of the receipts from each sale by a cannabis manufacturer; one percent of the receipts from each sale by a cannabis wholesaler; and two percent of the receipts from each sale by a cannabis retailer,” the legislation states.


“Tax ramifications are very important in having a clear picture of what we’re looking at, as far as that issue. That would be something that I would like to know prior to making any kind of decision, so I’ll be interested in finding out more about that issue, especially with regard to the tax ramifications,” Gribbin said.


Giralo, however, remained steadfast.


“I’m opposed. It’s something that I don’t think that the two percent is worth. I’m waiting to see all the things in the legislation, but I don’t see anything in it that would make me say yes ... Two percent is not a lot of money. Are we going to need additional officers? Are you going to spend more than the two percent? These are all valuable questions, I think,” Giralo said.


DiDonato concurred.


“Money can never be your guide. Some things, money can’t buy. That’s what I feel. Not everything can be bought,” DiDonato said.


Giralo said that police input would be vital for council to make an informed decision.


“I want to know what is the position of our police chief, and what his thoughts are with the whole idea. I’d like to hear what his position is, and how he thinks if security would be an issue, and everything else. It goes hand-in-hand with police coverage. I really think we need to hear the police chief weigh in on the whole thing,” Giralo said.


Oliva agreed, and noted that input from various aspects of the public and private sectors would be key in rendering a proper decision.


“It’s also very important that we consult with the fire department, the police department, business and industry about their thoughts as well on what the impact could be to allowing it or not approving it. I think there’s some additional due diligence that needs to be done on behalf of mayor and council, and I’m looking forward to doing that due diligence so I can make the right decision for the community,” Oliva said.


Giralo also said that he wanted to make sure that the public was duly informed on all facets of the issue, and that they should have the opportunity to weigh in once more.


“I think A., the public should be fully aware, B., every council member should be read in on it, the legality of it, what it can grow to, what are the security measures; I can go on and on. We need to know everything to make an intelligent decision. If, indeed, the people of Hammonton, if we had a public hearing and the people of Hammonton came out and said, ‘we don’t care if you grow it,’ that’s fine, but I want to know what kind of security system, everything that’s involved in it. You just cannot blindly go into something ... I want to hear what the public’s got to say. I want to know what the public thinks about all of this,” Giralo said.


Should the town decide not to allow sale and distribution of cannabis products, DiDonato said that there will more than likely be options available in other municipalities.


“I’m sure there will be enough dispensaries if the folks from town want to partake in that. From Hammonton, you can drive 10 miles each way and you’re in many different places. You could take a little ride,” DiDonato said.


Olivo concurred with DiDonato.


“Somebody can go buy it in a neighboring town, or, I assume, get it delivered as well ... We certainly can’t stop somebody from purchasing it and then using it in their backyard or on their own deck; that’s something that we can’t do, and not something I would ever want to do. For their own personal use, they can do whatever they need to do, but I think we still need to do our due diligence and come up with a solution as to what should we do and what is best for the community,” Olivo said.


Giralo echoed Olivo’s sentiments.


“If somebody wants to buy it out of town and come home and smoke their head off, I could care less ... This is America. People are free to do whatever they choose, but my position is that I want to hear everything. I’ve got to study it,” Giralo said.


Fortunately, Furgione said, the town has a little bit of time to render a fully informed decision and pass the appropriate ordinances.


“I’m aware that we have until August to do something, and right now I’m in the full research-and-gathering mode so I can fully grasp and understand this. I think it’s a huge issue, and it’s something to act on lightly one way or the other,” Furgione said.


Rodio said that, like Hammonton, municipalities throughout the state will need to research the matter fully before deciding on how to proceed with legalized recreational marijuana.


“I don’t think there’s really a mayor or council who knows what they’re going to do yet, from what I’m reading and learning. It’s going to take some thinking,” Rodio said.