New Jersey Marijuana Legalization: Toms River May Bring Back Weed Ban

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Township Council members haven’t given up on their weed ban plan.

A little over a month after the council voted unanimously to shelve a proposal to ban recreational marijuana sales, a majority of the seven-member governing body seems prepared to vote “yes” if a similar measure is reintroduced.

“I don’t see anything good about allowing the sale of marijuana,” Council President Brian Kubiel said. “We’re looking at banning it. If new information comes out, we can certainly repeal it. We need to take a stand.”

Council members were chided at a recent meetings by Bill McPhail, a resident of the Lake Ridge adult community, who criticized them for voting to table the ordinance.

“You guys had the lack of guts,” to ban recreational pot, McPhail said. He said the council had allowed themselves to be influenced by people who don’t live in Toms River.

McPhail was referring to a Feb. 13 public hearing on the weed ban ordinance at which Toms River residents, along with marijuana advocates from other towns, including Asbury Park, Eatontown, Spotswood and Gloucester Township, said the council’s move to ban recreational pot sales was premature and ill-informed.

Earlier this month, McPhail exhorted the council to bring back the weed ban: “Easter is coming. Resurrect the ordinance!”

Councilman George E. Wittmann Jr. said Wednesday that the council is thinking about reintroducing the ban “in the near future.” Wittmann, who championed barring the sale of recreational weed, was on vacation when the public hearing on the original ordinance took place.

He expressed agreement — as well as  a bit of frustration — when McPhail, and a handful of other residents said the council should not have given in to pressure from the pro-marijuana side.

Growing pot at home would also have been barred by the ordinance. Medical marijuana sales would not be affected.

“I absolutely agree with you. We should have passed it,” Wittmann said. “Unfortunately, six people did not agree.”

The weed ordinance was tabled at the suggestion of Councilwoman Laurie Huryk, a registered nurse who has argued that since marijuana has not yet been legalized in New Jersey, passing any kind of law about it is premature.

“It would have been just a political statement,” said Huryk. “It was not a meaningful ordinance. The local law would be meaningless until the state passes it.”

Gov. Phil Murphy made marijuana legalization part of his campaign platform and has pledged to sign a legalization bill within the first 100 days of his Jan. 16 inauguration.

Murphy, a Middletown resident, largely cited social justice concerns as his reasoning for legalization. Various studies have shown that black people are significantly more likely to be arrested for marijuana use or possession, despite similar use rates among white people.

But while the state Legislature prepares to hold hearings on legalizing pot, many towns in Monmouth and Ocean counties have moved to ban weed sales.

Town officials appear to believe that any potential revenue that could be derived from permitting pot sales would not make up for the potential problems that could arise.

Several Ocean County towns, including Berkeley, Ocean Gate, Point Pleasant Beach, Seaside Heights and Lavallette, have either banned recreational weed sales or have said they plan to do so.

The Ocean County Board of Freeholders adopted a resolution in February opposing marijuana legalization in New Jersey, and Freeholder Director Gerry P. Little caused a stir when he claimed weed is more addictive than cocaine. He later said he was wrong to make the statement.

In January, Attorney General Jeff Sessions withdrew an Obama administration policy not to interfere with state laws allowing people to use marijuana for medical or recreational uses.

Sessions’ decision will give U.S. Attorneys the ability to pursue marijuana cases, although it’s unclear if many would choose to do so.

Toms River’s Wittmann said he believed allowing weed to be sold here would create a “potential nuisance.”

Council members Dan Rodrick and Maria Maruca said they are prepared to vote for a weed ban.

“I’ve been teaching now for 17 years,” said Rodrick, who is an environmental and earth science teacher in Middletown. “Every single sad case where drugs destroy lives and families, it all starts with drinking and smoking (marijuana).”

Maruca said she was interested in hearing public comment on the weed ban, but added that it was unfortunate that “more residents from out of Toms River than in Toms River commented on it.”

“If it is reintroduced, I would support it,” she said. “If the state does go ahead, and we have to amend our ordinance, then we’ll do it.”