NJ Towns Still Undecided

INSA, a medical marijuana dispensary in Easthampton, Massachusetts. The dispensary operators and local officials say New Jersey towns can learn from the cannabis experiment in Massachusetts. Photo: INSA

N.J. towns can’t make up their minds about weed. Here’s how it went for one in Massachusetts.

When legal weed dispensaries wanted to set up shop in Easthampton, Massachusetts, local officials worried about increased crime, kids smoking weed and property values falling.

But none of the stereotypical nightmares came true.

“We have not seen one of those things,” said Mayor Nicole LaChapelle. “Our view of this was very much influenced by our fears and something so new. It certainly influenced the ordinance. It also reflected public opinion.”

Instead, the Western Massachusetts town of some 16,000 people saw rents and revenues rise — along with its time commitment to getting the dispensaries up and running. Four have opened there so far.

“There’s a perception of what this is going to look like in a town, and the reality is really different,” said Steve Reilly, an owner of INSA, a marijuana company that opened in Easthampton.

Massachusetts residents voted to legalize marijuana in 2016. It took two years for the first dispensaries to open, with Easthampton seeing sales for those 21 and older by late 2018. They were the first dispensaries open to anyone 21 and older on the East Coast.

New Jersey, which is more like Massachusetts than western states that legalized cannabis in the past decade, hopes to get stores up and running sooner. Industry experts have predicted sales could start late this year or by early 2022.

But a more pressing deadline looms for cities and towns. They must decide by Aug. 21 if they will allow, limit or completely ban the sale, manufacture and growing of marijuana.

More than 100 towns have already passed ordinances banning cannabis business or indicated they plan to do so. But many are on the fence, plagued by remaining questions.

Reilly said tours of dispensaries for local officials are “critical” to help them understand the reality of cannabis businesses. His company INSA has revived an old section of the town with empty mills.

“It’s very difficult to describe to somebody what this looks like,” Reilly said. “It’s very high-tech. There’s a lot that’s involved with it.”

“They leave having a totally different concept of what that is,” Reilly said of those who come to his property.

The company has applied to open a medical dispensary in Middle Township, Cape May County.

LaChapelle said the town’s fixation on crime rate misdirected their attention from other issues. Vetting and setting up the dispensary raised legal costs for the town that it has yet to recover. Cannabis business has also spurred revitalization of the town’s mill district, becoming part of new development that has increased housing costs.

“It’s severe,” she said. “We didn’t have a lot of housing stock in the first place. We’re seeing houses being sold for tens of thousands of dollars over listing.”

She said it has also brought travelers from out of state, which has boosted business in Easthampton and likely neighboring towns, too.

LaChapelle said legal cannabis has helped her town avoid a COVID-19 related budget deficit, but bringing in a cannabis business takes time and money. One potential dispensary fell apart after the town invested time in talks.

“The amount of time that we put into these applications was immense, but there’s no guarantee they’re actually going to go through.”

LaChapelle said passing an ordinance is vital for towns to determine their own rules. She has spoken to officials in at least one New Jersey town about best practices as a mayor who has lived through the process.

Partnership as opposed to overly restrictive business practices is what cuts down on illegal activity, LaChapelle said.

“If you allow unfounded fears to influence that, you’re going to create local barriers,” she said. “You’re limiting local buying in these facilities and it enriches or encourages a gray or black market to continue.”