When New Jerseyans finally go to buy their first ounce of legal weed, they may not be able to find a licensed dispensary nearby.
Nearly 71% of towns across New Jersey — some 400 municipalities — completely opted out of the recreational cannabis industry, passing ordinances that prohibit cannabis cultivation facilities, manufacturers, wholesalers distributors, delivery companies and legal weed dispensaries, according to a USA TODAY NETWORK analysis of municipal marijuana ordinances.
Only 98 municipalities, mostly in South Jersey and Central Jersey, passed ordinances allowing legal weed dispensaries within their borders. Many of the municipal ordinances placed strict zoning regulations on dispensaries, such as limiting them to one particular redevelopment area or zone.
Another 41 towns passed ordinances that specifically prohibit dispensaries but allow some combination of the other five classes of New Jersey cannabis licenses, from cultivation centers to delivery companies. The same strict zoning regulations are in place on most of the ordinances.
“It fits what our residents would allow and what our infrastructure had to offer,” said Parsippany-Troy Hills Mayor Michael Soriano.
The township committee passed an ordinance that allows cannabis warehousing and distribution businesses in certain zones.
Ten municipalities opted out of the cannabis industry completely but made an exception for medical marijuana uses.
As part of its analysis, the Network analyzed public notices and municipal documents from 551 of the 565 municipalities in New Jersey. Information from the other 14 towns were not immediately available.
‘The sky didn’t fall’
Edmund DeVeaux, president of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, said he wasn’t concerned that the cannabis industry would be handcuffed due to the opt-outs.
He likened the situation to Colorado, where 70% of municipalities opted out of recreational sales when its own marijuana legalization law — the country’s first — took effect in 2014.
But in the span of just four years, the number of municipalities allowing legal weed sales doubled.
“They saw that the sky didn’t fall, and that the revenue generated by neighboring towns was really just too lucrative to pass by,” DeVeaux said.
In New Jersey, municipalities can opt back in at any time, as long as public notice requirements are met.
Under the legal weed laws enacted by Gov. Phil Murphy in February, municipalities had until Aug. 22 to pass an ordinance either prohibiting cannabis businesses entirely or creating zoning regulations about which kinds of businesses would be allow in particular zones.
Failure to pass an ordinance means that dispensaries would be automatically considered a conditional use in any retail zone. Other cannabis businesses would be considered a conditional use in any industrial zone.
Conditional uses require approval by the local planning board in order for such a business to break ground or open.
“The (state) regulations do give municipalities quite a voice,” said Long Branch business administrator George Jackson.
The city is one of only a few that willingly let the Aug. 22 deadline pass before the city council approved its own regulations. Those local rules are in the draft phase now, he said.
Jackson said the city was following the will of the 71% of Long Branch voters who voted “yes” on the legal weed ballot question.
“Long Branch will be protected and we will be able to make good sound decision on what uses and where they will be located,” he said.
Under state law, municipalities have no authority to prohibit their residents from possessing or consuming legal weed, as long as it’s not on public property.
Municipalities are also barred from prohibiting delivery companies from making deliveries within their borders, nor can they stop the transportation of cannabis through the town — such as a truck delivering products from a wholesaler to a retailer.
‘We always knew we could go back’
A majority of voters in all but three municipalities in New Jersey voted in favor of the marijuana legalization ballot question in November 2020.
Among elected officials opting their towns out of the cannabis industry are those simply opposed to the concept of legal weed: In Point Pleasant Beach, Mayor Paul Kanitra has said the town’s biggest quality of life issues stem from the overconsumption of drugs and alcohol — and he doesn’t want to exacerbate the issue with marijuana businesses.
And when Lacey council members opted out of the industry, Mayor Peter Curatolo argued that legal weed would lead to an influx of gang members who would “come in here and undercut” it.
“Go somewhere else to buy it. Uber some pot over, if you need it that badly,” he said.
But a wide range of towns — geographically and politically — chose to opt out of industry simply as a time-saving measure. Many elected officials said the six-month window wasn’t enough time to completely draw up rules for a brand new industry.
And other officials said they were perturbed by a lack of guidance from the state: The New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission, which oversees both the medical marijuana and legal weed industries in the state, had the same Aug. 22 deadline to issue its rules and regulations for the cannabis industry.
The panel unanimously adopted an initial set of rules on Thursday that largely detailed the process for obtaining a license, social equity programs designed to put licenses in the hands of those with marijuana arrests in their criminal history and some specific rules for operating a dispensary.
Like many towns across New Jersey, Roxbury officials were wary about allowing cannabis businesses in town without knowing what the state regulations would allow.
“It’s simple really. We wanted to get in before the deadline. The state had not yet developed the regulations. Without these regulations, it was impossible to decide what was appropriate for Roxbury,” Mayor Bob DeFillippo said.
Now that the CRC has released its initial regulations, DeFillippo said his planning department will review them.
“We always knew we could go back and amend the ordinance,” he said. “Whether we will or not, I don’t know.”
CRC Executive Director Jeff Brown said Thursday that the commission had “no issue” with municipalities that opted out and would change course now that the regulations were released.
“They get to see the full slate of what we’re proposing and what we intend to set for the launch of this industry and this market,” he said.
‘Worth taking a chance’
While there are some pockets across the state where municipalities approved retail marijuana businesses, the most fertile lands for dispensary operators are in South Jersey.
More than one-third of all towns where dispensaries are approved in counties just across the Delaware River from Pennsylvania, from Mercer County south through Salem County.
DeVeaux, from the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, attributed the relative eagerness in South Jersey municipalities to the area’s economic status.
In Burlington County, where 13 municipalities approved dispensaries, the median household income is $88,797. But in Somerset County, where just three municipalities approved them, the median household income is $111,587, according to Census data.
“The potential to generate revenue, to generate foot traffic by having retail, I think they get it,” DeVeaux said. “If you’re a municipal leader, you realize that this could really be a boon to your local economy.”
The Trenton City Council had already approved ordinances allowing all aspects of the cannabis industry in the city, and Mayor Reed Gusciora last week convinced council members to back his plan to allow retail operations downtown and double the number of dispensaries from five to 10.
“It’s going to be a really big boom for our economy,” said Gusciora, an early author of legal weed bills during his time in the New Jersey Assembly.
Gusciora compared the potential economic ripple of cannabis dispensaries to the “Starbucks effect” Trenton saw when the national coffee corporation opened a store on South Warren Avenue. More state workers came out of their offices to grab coffee, which meant there was more foot traffic that attracted other businesses.
Likewise, dispensaries will attract customers – from other parts of Mercer County as well as Pennsylvania – which will create a customer base for potential restaurants, grocery stores, floral shops and other retail, Gusciora said.
Being an early supporter of the cannabis industry amid a swath of New Jersey towns hesitant to allow it also puts Trenton in line to garner some of those manufacturing, warehousing and distribution businesses, Gusciora said.
“This gives us a jump start on the cannabis industry,” he said. “While other towns hesitant for good reasons and bad, we clearly are able to set the path.
“It is something worth taking a chance on.”