By Jay Cook |
MIDDLETOWN – With Gov. Phil Murphy on a mission to legalize marijuana within 100 days of entering office, some towns across the state are reacting by yanking the welcome mat to the recreational cannabis industry.
On Tuesday evening, the governor’s own hometown took a stand on the issue that has riveted many New Jerseyans.
With a quick, unanimous vote during the Feb. 20 township committee meeting, Middletown’s all-Republican governing body introduced its own local zoning law “prohibiting certain business uses associated with the growth, production and sale of recreational marijuana,” as well as establishing “minimal use condition standards” for medical marijuana facilities.
Committeeman Tony Fiore said the township felt the need to introduce the ordinance because it “protects our rights to say that ‘we had put this in place prior’ if we don’t believe the legislation will be beneficial to the municipality.” There is no scheduled date for its second reading and vote.
The committee said the reason for a recreational cannabis prohibition stems from its pessimistic view of the benefits municipalities would actually reap from legalization. Of the forecasted $300 million in sales tax revenues New Jersey would collect from legal cannabis, the committee believes only 3 percent would trickle down to the municipalities – which comes out to about $9 million. Split among the 565 municipalities in New Jersey, each would only see about $16,000 in actual revenue, per the governing body’s estimates.
“The last thing I want to see is the state jam it to Middletown once again, and they’re very good at it,” said Fiore. “They’ve done it under Republicans and Democrats and everybody else. That’s what we’re trying to protect the interests of.”
Fiore said the revenue is “not going to fill a pothole, it’s not going to hire a police officer, it’s not going to put a book in anybody’s hands.”
No members of the public stepped up to endorse the bill, but about a dozen pro-legalization advocates from around the state showed up at the public meeting to speak out against Middletown’s prohibitive stance.
Edward “Lefty” Grimes was the first to address the township committee.
“Phil Murphy is legalizing cannabis for social justice issues in New Jersey,” said Grimes, of East Hanover. “I’m a little shocked that Middletown is going to ban this. I’m a little shocked about the ‘reefer madness’ coming out of this town.” Referring to reports that minorities are more likely to be arrested for marijuana, Grimes said, “You’re only hurting blacks and Latinos, but that’s what ‘reefer madness’ is.”
Grimes said he was addicted to opiates and cannabis helped him heal. He believed Middletown was “using semantics now to hurt patients and enforce racist policies.”
But Middletown Mayor Stephanie Murray rebuked that claim, saying Middletown is “not outlawing” medical marijuana establishments.
Richard Moroski of Spotswood, formerly a Middletown resident, said cannabis has helped him live with multiple sclerosis and cope with post-traumatic stress disorder – not become a detriment to society.
“I don’t look like Cheech and Chong. I don’t live my life that way,” Moroski said. “I’m a father and a grandfather. I pay my taxes and I’m a good guy. I am the kind of guy to stop for you on the side of the road in case you have a flat tire.”
He also suggested the township is better off opening its arms to legalized recreational cannabis in an effort to combat the statewide opioid addiction.
“There is a black market, we all know it exists on either side of this river, on either side of this highway,” Moroski said. “It’ll always be here.”
Also present to talk on the record was Hugh Giordano, a union representative with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 152. His union represents medical and recreational cannabis small businesses and has helped create apprenticeships around the country for prospective workers.
“We think we have a lot of ideas and programs to not only make you revenue but protect the youth and create good jobs,” Giordano said.
Despite some of the outcry, Middletown’s elected officials made it clear that the ordinance may actually never pass, or it could be changed completely, based on what the state legislature decides in the future.
“I personally am not an opponent to medical marijuana,” said Fiore, “and I don’t have a real strong opinion one way or the other of recreational, OK? I’m more of a Libertarian at heart.”
Murray also added her opinion, saying, “This isn’t a moral judgment. It’s none of my business what people want to do if it’s legal. I don’t care, honestly. But this is a zoning ordinance.”
“If the economics change, hey, this might never see the light of day,” Fiore said. “But right now as it’s written, the X and Y are just not going to correlate.”
This article was first published in the Feb. 22-March 1, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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