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Friday, April 12, 2024

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Pot’s Legal; Towns Weigh Options

Marijuana Smoker - File Photo

By Karen Knight

COURT HOUSE – Now that adult-use cannabis was legalized for those 21 years and older, municipal officials are scrambling to figure out what, if anything, they plan to do about allowing it to be sold, grown, distributed, or used within their communities.
Gov. Phil Murphy Feb. 22 signed historic adult-use cannabis reform bills into law, including A21 – “The New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory, Enforcement Assistance, and Marketplace Modernization Act,” which legalizes and regulates cannabis use and possession for adults 21 years and older (http://bit.ly/3syEBP) and A1897, which decriminalizes marijuana and hashish possession (http://bit.ly/2Mt9YMJ). 
According to a release (https://bit.ly/37DjMex), the governor also signed S3454 (http://bit.ly/2NGqqtz), clarifying alcohol, marijuana, and cannabis use and consumption for those younger than 21. 
The legislation also corrects inconsistencies in A21 and A1897 concerning marijuana and cannabis penalties for those who are underage.
While the new law allows for the possession of up to six ounces of marijuana, it will likely taketime before state residents can legally purchase it, as the state has to set up a marketplace and regulations for the new industry.
In the meantime, municipalities like Cape May, Middle Township, and Avalon have until Aug. 27 to decide the best course of action in the best interest of their community. 
“We have 180 days to review the new law,” said Cape May’s Interim City Manager Michael Voll. “It’s a whole new challenge for us. We are a law-and-order community, but we are open-minded. We will review what we can permit, prohibit and allow while protecting the health and safety of our community.”
Middle Township Mayor Timothy Donohue said, “The implementation of the provisions are complex and far-reaching. The (Middle) Township Committee and our legal professionals will review the new regulations and seek public input. We have a window of several months to do our due diligence and will carefully consider all options and possible impacts, positive and negative, to the community.”
While municipal officials try to understand the ramifications of the new law, police officials are also dealing with aspects of it.
Effective immediately, those in the Garden State can carry up to six ounces without the threat of fines or arrest.
Those under 21 are subject to a series of written warnings – the first warning would be given to them, the second to a parent, and the third would involve a referral to a community program, such as drug education or treatment. 
Police can no longer stop someone because they smell alcohol or marijuana, and they must have body cameras turned on when interacting with young people, who can’t be detained beyond a warning.
“We are in the process of reviewing the new legislation and guidance from the New Jersey attorney general,” said Middle Township Police Chief Christopher Leusner. “I have serious concerns about the marijuana decriminalization bill signed by the governor. I am very concerned about the fact officers cannot tell a parent if an officer comes in contact with a juvenile in possession of alcohol or marijuana unless it is a second offense.”
Cape May Police Chief Dekon Fashaw Sr. echoed Leusner’s concerns, adding that as a father of a 14-year-old, almost 12-year-old, and 10-year-old, “They are at the peak age of drug interest. It’s going to be very hard to manage how you roll up to a 14- or 15-year-old who may be drinking or using marijuana and not tell their parent. We’ve been in meetings with the AG (attorney general) and county Prosecutor’s Office and will take our lead from them, so we don’t violate any civil liberties.”
The new law also creates a way for pending cases involving marijuana offenses to be dismissed and offers more protection when it comes to pot. 
The state Office of the Attorney General (OAG) Feb. 23 issued two documents to law enforcement (http://bit.ly/3pXu5QH). One instructs state, county and municipal prosecutors to dismiss pending charges, as of Feb. 22, for any marijuana offense that is no longer illegal under state law, and another provides guidance to law enforcement officers about new enforcement requirements pursuant to the marijuana decriminalization law.
“With Gov. Murphy’s signature, the decades-long practice of racist marijuana enforcement will begin to recede, in a shift that emphasizes the urgency of building the most equitable framework possible for cannabis legalization,” stated Amol Sinha, executive director, American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, which is a founding member of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform. 
“With this historic reform, New Jersey also shifts our approach to youth possession and use by moving away from the punitive status quo to a framework that values public health, harm reduction, and the well-being of young people,” Sinha added.
Although Black New Jerseyans are up to four times more likely to be arrested on cannabis charges than white people, according to a bill co-sponsor, Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D-20th), Cape May County communities, like Middle Township and Cape May, buck that trend.
In Middle Township, Leusner said, there were 12 arrests for marijuana possession this year before passage of the law: 10 white individuals, one Black, one Hispanic, and no juveniles. All the charges will be dismissed, per the OAG directive.  
In Cape May, one 24-year-old Black man and one 50-year-old white man were arrested for possession this year. 
“We’re not really busy with it like the bigger cities,” Fashaw added.
“From an enforcement standpoint, Chief Jeffrey Christopher, of the Avalon Police Department, is in meetings about this marijuana legalization,” said Scott Wahl, Avalon business administrator. “The OAG released some guidelines for police departments, and many police departments are in meetings to get brought up to speed on what they should and should not do. 
“I think a comment, as of now, is fair to say that leadership of the Avalon PD (police department), along with our municipal solicitor, are reviewing the guidance issued by the Office of the Attorney General to make sure there is a complete understanding of the new legislation.”
Wahl said a few years ago, Avalon Borough Council “made it quite clear the borough is not interested in having any recreational marijuana sales facilities in the community.  
“That will not happen,” he said. “It is my recollection that once this new legislation was enacted, a municipality must expressly prohibit the operation of legal recreational marijuana dispensaries again. I think it’s very safe to say that there will continue to be no interest in having a store of this kind in the borough. Regardless of any financial benefit, members of the council do not believe this is a good idea.”
In 2019, Avalon passed an ordinance prohibiting business or enterprise that is engaged in the manufacture, sale or distribution of medicinal or recreational marijuana, cannabis, or any product containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) or their derivatives, including the growing or cultivation, and/or the paraphernalia that facilitates the use of marijuana.
Three separate taxes can be applied on legal pot purchases, according to the new laws. One is an enhanced state sales tax of 7%, another is a social justice excise fee, ranging from $10-$60, with 100% going to impact zones within a community intended to promote local business, and another is an optional 2% sales tax by the municipality to be fully used by the municipality’s budget.
“The sales tax does make it more enticing, as we are always looking for more revenue to keep our taxes low,” said Voll. “It definitely gives (Cape May) City Council something they will need to discuss further.”
Middle Township did not take preemptive action to ban cannabis sales before the legislation was enacted, according to the mayor. 
“Middle Township approved a resolution, in 2019, supporting the application of INSA, to acquire a medical marijuana license and open a facility in Middle Township. The township will be meeting with INSA officials, in March, to discuss the ongoing licensing application process. 
“In the resolution we passed in support of the INSA medical marijuana license application, we included language specifying that any move towards recreational use sales of cannabis by INSA would have to be approved by the committee.”
INSA, a Massachusetts-based company, is looking to open a facility on Indian Trail Road.
“Talking a little more globally here,” Wahl said, “I think it’s a fair representation that there are concerns about the impacts the legalization of marijuana will have from a safety standpoint in the community. 
“What criteria exist for police to determine if someone is under the influence? How do you manage seasonal individuals charged with a high level of public safety who can now use the drug legally? Things of that nature.  
“If I recall correctly, the ordinance prohibiting the recreational stores, in Avalon, may have referenced driving statistics from Colorado, which, I believe, were unfavorable to public safety after the legalization of recreational marijuana there.
“I don’t see any reason why Avalon will change course here,” he stressed.
Purchases will initially be made at existing medical marijuana dispensaries, but only after they show they have enough marijuana for the nearly 100,000 patients in New Jersey. Growing marijuana at home is still prohibited.
The Cannabis Regulatory Commission, which will oversee the industry, has six months to enact its rules and regulations before it’ll start accepting new licenses for recreational businesses.
A recent court ruling may help hasten the process. The state Department of Health may soon be able to issue up to 24 new licenses to dispensaries.
However, the new law limits the number of licenses to grow pot to 37 in the first two years.
To contact Karen Knight, email kknight@cmcherald.com.

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