On the night the Montclair Township Council was expected to give its final approval to ordinances that allow seven recreational marijuana establishments in town, council members also presented another ordinance — to ban them all together, at least for now.

But in the end, the council voted to allow two marijuana retail shops and five other cannabis-related businesses within Montclair’s borders. The ordinances place the businesses in the southern portion of the township, despite objections from some residents and council members that doing so concentrates them around Montclair’s less affluent neighborhoods, where more residents of color live. But council members said the zoning could be expanded within months.

The council voted 5-2 in favor of all three ordinances enabling marijuana businesses. They cover where marijuana establishments can be located, licensing fees, the number of establishments and hours of operation. The council also voted on resolutions to require they take effect immediately.

The ordinance banning marijuana establishments was pulled from the agenda, after the council voted through the others. 

The three ordinances were voted through on first reading on July 13 by a 4-2 vote, with one abstention by Councilman Bob Russo. As they did on Tuesday during the final vote, Deputy Bill Hurlock and Fourth Ward Councilman David Cummings had voted against the first reading of the ordinances, arguing that the town should wait for guidance from the state Cannabis Regulatory Commission, which has yet to issue regulations. 

Montclair has until Aug. 21 to implement laws regulating cannabis establishments.
Photo by Add Weed on Unsplash
Montclair has until Aug. 21 to implement laws regulating cannabis establishments.
Photo by Add Weed on Unsplash

Although the state has passed laws allowing for recreational marijuana sales throughout New Jersey, municipalities can still bar or allow sales within their borders. Municipalities that allow sales can also set up regulations for where and when marijuana businesses can operate, how many establishments can be licensed and the fees for licensing. But towns are facing the state’s deadline of Aug. 21 to pass the local laws.

Doing nothing by Aug. 21 would mean cannabis businesses and services could automatically be considered permitted uses in all industrial zones, and conditional uses in commercial and retail zones, Township Attorney Ira Karasick said.

Had the council introduced the ordinance banning establishments, it wouldn’t have had time to give the ordinance a second reading and final adoption before the Aug. 21 deadline unless it scheduled a special meeting. The council is next scheduled to meet Aug. 24.

Half of New Jersey’s towns are readying to ban marijuana sales for now, according to reporting by Gothamist.

Councilman Peter Yacobellis, who helped pen Montclair’s marijuana laws, referring to Montclair as the progressive capital of New Jersey, said the township should be leading on progressive issues, including crafting legislation even before the rest of the state does. 

“I also believe we must honor the will of the voters. And last year, you overwhelmingly voted to legalize recreational cannabis,” Yacobellis said in a message sent to constituents ahead of the meeting. The local laws will “allow the township to dip its toe in the water and experiment with this new marketplace,” he said.

Montclair voters overwhelmingly supported legalization of recreational marijuana, by a 5-1 margin, in last year’s statewide referendum on the matter, Yacobellis said.

“It’s no longer an illegal substance. It’s no longer a controlled substance. It’s no longer subject to a drug-free school zone. Talking about the stigma — there’s nothing bad going on here. It’s now a legal business transaction,” Yacobellis said at the meeting.

The state’s newly created Cannabis Regulatory Commission is charged with adopting rules including those for licensing applications and eligibility; the number of permissible licenses statewide for each type of business; security requirements for licensees; labeling and packaging requirements; retailer employee eligibility criteria; and advertising and marketing limitations.

Any marijuana business will first have to be granted a state license, then a license from the host municipality.

The ordinance that would have barred marijuana establishments also stated the township could allow for them at any date in the future, once the commission releases guidance, but that if it allowed the businesses now, wouldn’t be able to prohibit them or downgrade the number of establishments for five years. 

Marijuana sales are not new to Montclair. In December 2012, Montclair was the first municipality in the state to welcome an alternative treatment center — then the Greenleaf Compassion Center, now under new ownership and operating as Ascend — in which cannabis could be sold for medical uses only. The township, however, never created any ordinances zoning the establishments or collecting taxes on sales. 

Although the planning board on July 26 expressed concerns over what it called the “inequity” of zoning the establishments to the southern portion of town only, and recommended a 500-foot buffer from schools instead of the 250-foot buffer allowed in the ordinance. But no amendments were made to the ordinances. 

Karasick said that the state allows for broad discretion by the municipality in determining where the establishments can be located within its borders, and added that the town does not limit the distance between schools and liquor stores.

Mayor Sean Spiller noted that the sections that would allow the dispensaries of Lackawanna Plaza, Bloomfield Avenue and a section of Valley Road are not in Montclair’s Fourth Ward, mainly in the Third Ward.

But Cummings said the process was flawed. Saying some refer to marijuana as a gateway drug, he said more consideration should have been given to not allowing marijuana establishments near churches and to keeping them farther away from schools. He also noted that the establishments are being zoned to Montclair’s lower-income neighborhoods.

Montclair’s new laws

Montclair will allow up to two recreational marijuana retailers and five other cannabis-related businesses — one of each for a cannabis delivery service, cannabis wholesaler, cannabis distributor, cannabis manufacturer and cannabis cultivator. For now, Montclair would not allow for on-site consumption.

In Montclair’s C1 Central Business Zone, retail cannabis establishments will be allowed on Bloomfield Avenue and a small section along Lackawanna Plaza street between Greenwood and Bloomfield avenues in the C1 Central Business zone. The Central Business zone is located between St. Luke’s Place/Francis Place to the west and Elm Street/Grove Street to the east, and between Elm Street/Grove Street to the west and the border of Montclair and Glen Ridge to the east.

Montclair has seven Neighborhood Commercial Zones scattered throughout the township, but among those, cannabis retailers will be allowed only on Valley Road between Walnut and James streets.

Montclair will allow for five other cannabis-related businesses — a cannabis delivery service, cannabis wholesaler, cannabis distributor, cannabis manufacturer and cannabis cultivator — all of which will be allowed in the C2 district, considered one of the industrial parts of Montclair, and located in the Fourth Ward between Forest Street, Oak Place, Depot Square and Willard Place a bit beyond Pine Street, with the exception of Walnut Street.

Medical marijuana establishments, which had not been regulated, would be allowed in the C1 and C2 zones. They would be required to be located above the first floor, to protect the privacy of patients. 

The ordinance also creates a 250-foot buffer between schools and childcare centers and cannabis businesses. But a handful of callers into the council meeting said that distance wasn’t good enough. Instead, they suggested the council create a 1,000-foot buffer, the same distance traditionally set for “drug-free” zones under state and federal regulations. A few members of Union Baptist Church said the buffer should also include churches, as well.

Even if Montclair hadn’t allowed a delivery license, it wouldn’t have been able to ban deliveries from other municipalities. 

State legislation allows for marijuana host municipalities to levy 1% or 2% taxes on transactions on top of the state’s 6.625% sales tax. Montclair would collect a tax on the receipts of cannabis sales or transfers of 2% for cannabis cultivators, manufacturers and retailers, and 1% for wholesalers.

Licenses would be granted for three years. The application fee would be $5,000, with annual renewals of $2,500, for delivery businesses and retailers. All other cannabis business applications would cost $10,000, with $5,000 renewals. 

Yacobellis said the ordinances were a compromise, as he was against buffer zones altogether as the state does not require them, and he hopes to see consumption licenses in the future. He said he is also optimistic that the town could expand the zoning to all other business zones in the months ahead. 

In the case of multiple applicants for the limited number of licenses, the Township Council would evaluate all applicants considering factors including each business’s ties to the community and whether at least one shareholder has lived in or had a business in Montclair for at least five years. The council would also consider a business’s commitment to provide benefits to the community, and its demonstrated commitment to diversity in its ownership and hiring practices.

Minister Joanne Spencer from Union Baptist Church asked the council how Black and brown residents will benefit from the dispensaries that will be placed in their neighborhoods. Katherine Allen Kerry asked how the taxes and fees be invested back into the neighborhoods. Numerous other callers voiced concerns with local ability to get the licenses.