With New Jersey’s legislature and Gov. Phil Murphy heading into the final stretch of approving a plan to increase the state’s minimum wage to $15 per hour, political observers from both sides of the aisle are widely expecting that legalizing recreational cannabis will be the next issue to take top priority.
The legalization of recreational marijuana, however, hasn’t been the top issue of its kind in Brick. Instead, a proposal to build a medical marijuana dispensary and grow house in a residential zone has stirred up the most controversy. But the medical marijuana proposal could be the first of many to appear before the township’s zoning board should a recreational market be created in New Jersey.
As it currently stands, since cannabis is illegal for recreational purposes in New Jersey, dispensaries are not a permitted use in any of the township’s zones, including commercial or industrial zones. Under the primary legalization bill sponsored by state Sen. Nicholas P. Scutari (D-Middlesex/Somerset/Union), the use of marijuana would become legal statewide, but towns would be able to decide which zones dispensaries and grow houses could accommodate the open market – or sales could be banned entirely. Towns that ban sales would not be eligible to receive a portion of the revenue generated by taxes imposed on cannabis sales.
In Brick, Mayor John Ducey said he would favor letting the people decide whether the township should allow sales, should they be legalized.
“I would love a public referendum,” Ducey said. “That would be an awesome idea and we would be able to do that during the next election.”
Under Brick’s form of government, the township council is responsible for placing items on the ballot. Ballot questions can be binding, representing the final reading of an ordinance, or non-binding in order to allow officials to see where the community stands on an issue.
“It’s something we’re definitely looking at,” Ducey said.
At town hall meetings and via social media, many residents opposed to recreational cannabis sales have asked why Brick has not followed dozens of other towns across the state in preemptively banning sales. Ducey’s reply is that such a ban would be useless – and cost money.
“[The bill] specifically says that any ordinances or zoning that was done prior to the legislation doesn’t count,” Ducey said. “There’s no reason to waste time doing it beforehand because you’d have to do it all over again.”
Enacting a preemptive ban would also require the township spend money paying an attorney to research and write an ordinance, then pay more money to advertise it in the newspaper, as required by state law, and hold a public hearing.
Locally, Point Pleasant Beach has enacted a preemptive ban. That town’s mayor, Stephen Reid (R), announced his intention to run for state Assembly this week. Toms River officials considered a ban but held off after the measure faced opposition. Seaside Heights officials discussed a ban as well, but decided to wait until after a law is enacted.
Indeed, Brick has plenty of time to engage in a debate. Scutari’s bill provides a six month period in after passage during which a ban on sales can be put into place. Towns would be able to revisit the issue after five years. Ducey, for his part, said he is skeptical as to whether New Jersey will ever legalize cannabis.
“I’ve said it, I don’t think it ever will pass,” he said. “There are too many variables – people fighting over it, people who don’t want it – I’d be surprised if it ever passes in New Jersey.”
Legislative leaders are considering a tax of about 12 percent on recreational sales of cannabis, but Murphy has favored a 25 percent tax. Opponents say a tax rate that is too high would lead people to continue to use the black market.
Scutari recently told the Newark Star-Ledger that he is “losing faith” in the legalization effort, but last week a new proposal to tax cannabis based on weight was floated as a potential compromise.
Vote: If Recreational Cannabis is Legalized in New Jersey, Should it be Sold in Brick?