Highlands Bans Recreational, Medicinal Cannabis Sales

March 7, 2019
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The borough’s unique mixed-use zoning in its downtown business district has restaurants and businesses next to residential properties.
Photo by Chris Rotolo

By Chris Rotolo | crotolo@tworivertimes.com

HIGHLANDS – Any immediate plans for potential pot dispensaries in the borough’s downtown business district went up in smoke at a recent council meeting, when the governing body introduced a resolution stating its intentions to ban the sale of recreational and medical marijuana.

Borough administrator Kim Gonzales said the council’s Feb. 20 decision to support an ordinance prohibiting marijuana sales is not a social commentary on the pros and cons of cannabis products but rather a social development decision, and ties into the municipality’s plans to hire an economic development professional.

“Hiring this professional to oversee our economic development is what ties this (ban on marijuana) all together with the borough’s vision,” Gonzales told The Two River Times in a Feb. 25 interview. “Yes, we want to revitalize our vacant storefronts, but we want to continue to cultivate a family-oriented culture and bring somebody in that will get things moving in that direction a little faster.” Though the borough’s post-Super Storm Sandy revitalization efforts have not gone unnoticed, they have been slower to bear the economic fruits of a bustling downtown that nearby municipalities like Sea Bright and Atlantic Highlands have experienced.

Low-lying geography and associated nuisance flooding have slowed that progress, as has the unique composition of the borough’s mixed-use downtown, in which residential homes stand next to storefronts and eateries.

Borough council president Rosemary Ryan said the town’s structure certainly factored into the decision.

“Residences are not separate in this district, as they are in many other neighboring towns,” Ryan told The Two River Times Tuesday. “A cannabis dispensary could very well be located right next to a home that has small children living in it.”

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New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy is expected to have a bill on his desk soon that, if signed, would legalize the sale of marijuana and related products.

In advance of that bill, advocacy groups and state legislators like Sen. Vin Gopal (D-13) have touted the economic opportunity an investment in cannabis business could offer to municipalities.

Ryan said the council will not be swayed to veer from its development plan, but would not completely shut the door on the borough’s future relationship with canna-business.

“Some residents think we are missing the financial boat for not allowing cannabis to be sold. However, many do not want it sold in our town right now. If it is a lucrative business, it will be a lucrative business in the future. We thought it was in the best interest of the town to delay this type of establishment from settling in our downtown area until we have an established and lucrative business district,” Ryan said.

Ryan added that residents who are in favor of dispensaries within the borough and the potential economic benefits they could bring, may not be considering the excess costs of welcoming that sort of business, citing heightened security measures, background checks, odor control, waste management and “other issues that involve the safety and well-being of the residents.”

She also pointed to two areas of redevelopment within the borough in the Shadow Lawn property and Captain’s Cove Marina as mixed-use projects aimed at bolstering the local economy while offering inviting, community-oriented destinations to residents.

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Following the lead of the Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders, which approved a Jan. 26, 2018 resolution stating its position against any attempt by New Jersey to legalize marijuana, several Two River-area towns adopted laws of their own.

Colts Neck, Rumson, Oceanport and Shrewsbury have banned weed sales in both recreational and medical forms.

Fair Haven said no to recreational sales, but left some wiggle room for a medical dispensary should an application come to them.

Middletown acted in a similar vein in February 2018 when it introduced a law that prohibited businesses from growing, producing and selling recreational marijuana, but included “minimal use conditions” for a medical facility. However, the township has not yet taken any formal action.

“I think it’s safe to say this is more of a town stance than anything else,” Gonzales said. “The council made this decision based on where Highlands is right now, what the vision of the future looks like, and the plan in place to get us there. The vision does not align with marijuana facilities in our business district at this time.”

The borough’s ban on marijuana sales extends to paraphernalia that facilitates the use, cultivation and harvesting of cannabis-based products.

This article was first published in the Feb. 28-March. 6, 2019 print edition of The Two River Times.

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