TRENTON – Cities and towns have the ultimate say over whether marijuana businesses are allowed locally, and many are already blocking them, at least temporarily. A related debate is percolating over how much more say the state Cannabis Regulatory Commission should yield to local governments.

Janice Kovach, the mayor of Clinton Town and president of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, said the league doesn’t have a position on legalization – but that towns must have local control and discretion and the ability to set stricter rules than the state.

“It’s important to note that opting out is not necessarily saying no,” Kovach said. “In some cases, an opt out is a maybe later.”

Charles Gormally, an attorney at Brach Eichler, said not every town needs to host dispensaries for the industry to succeed but that many are blocking them without trying to understand them.

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“Do not cede your regulatory authority to municipalities,” Gormally said at a CSC hearing. “This is a comprehensive regulatory framework. You should preempt the area 100%, and don’t let communities tell cannabis businesses what they can and cannot do to comply with the state statute. That’s your job.”

None of the municipalities that have adopted ordinances in recent months blocking recreational marijuana businesses showed up at the CSC hearing to discuss potential zoning and regulations. The panel did hear from towns eager to understand the rules – and hopeful their hands aren’t tied.

Steven Pardalis, a member of the Bloomingdale Cannabis Regulatory Commission, said the Passaic County borough is leaning toward blocking dispensaries by the Aug. 21 deadline for doing so, then unwinding that once state rules become clear.

“A small suburban town that has expressed interest is being open to retail marijuana sales in an area of the state where many, many of the towns are prohibiting them outright," Pardalis said.

Zach Katzen of the Atlantic City Advisory Committee said the state must ensure zoning rules don’t hamper the gambling resort, considering its hotel rooms, conventions and concerts he said are a natural fit for recreational marijuana use.

“There’s a very unique potential for Atlantic City to hold a majority of the marketplace for cannabis in New Jersey, especially with other Shore towns opting out,” Katzen said.

Joe Johnson, a policy legal fellow for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said the ACLU respects the right of municipalities to opt out of cannabis establishments.

“However, we are most interested in ensuring the municipalities that plan to opt in take the proper steps to protect their local industry from being run by large, multistate operators and instead incentivize small, local businesses,” Johnson said.

He said municipalities can do this by not enacting regulations that are cost-prohibitive for local entrepreneurs, such as large yearly licensing fees and nonrefundable application fees, as he said has been done recently in Bayonne.

Jeff Brown, executive director of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, indicated that the state plans to be completely deferential to municipalities regarding proximity to schools and other local ordinances, as it was in locating medical marijuana dispensaries.

“We’re not going to look at maps of drug-free school zones and things of that nature. We’re going to look to the municipalities to determine whether or not an ATC is appropriately situated,” Brown said.

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