Hopewell Township considers cannabis sales

A public Q&A forum was held on Thursday, May 20, by Hopewell Township to discuss the recent legalization of cannabis by the State of New Jersey and how new regulations on the industry might affect the municipality. The meeting, led by Committee member Michael Ruger, was the first and only planned forum presenting different sides of the argument for allowing or not allowing marijuana entrepreneurs to set up shop in Hopewell.

Residents were provided with the opportunity to speak with a panel of members of the community: Scott Miccio, a municipal and governmental attorney; HT Police Director Robert Karmazin; Heidi Kahme, chair of the Hopewell Valley Municipal Alliance; and Dr. Thomas Smith, superintendent of the Hopewell Valley Regional School District.

“The purpose of the panel was twofold. First, we wanted to get the views of the groups noted above. Second, we wanted to get the views of the public. This is an important issue for the community and we wanted to hear what people were thinking about it,” Ruger said.

Ruger explained that he did reach out to the New Jersey League of Municipalities and a representative of the cannabis industry but did not hear from either.

The percentage of Hopewell Township residents who voted in favor of cannabis legalization closely tracked the overall state statistics, explained Ruger, who said that 70% of voters in Hopewell voted for legalization, while the overall state statistic is 67.1%.

Now, Hopewell Township must decide by August 21 whether to opt-in to permit selling marijuana in the Township. Ruger explained if the Township does not decide by that deadline, it will be automatically opted-in.

Currently, there are six licenses with which people can enter the marijuana industry: cultivators, manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors, retailers, and delivery. Each type of license would be taxable by the municipality they inhabit, Miccio explained.

Although no one was there specifically to discuss tax revenue, Miccio did explain what the Township would be able to do: “The municipality could tax receipts from the sale of cannabis by cultivator to another cultivator, or from one cannabis establishment…The maximum permissible taxes under those situations are 2% for sales by cultivators, manufacturers and retailers, and 1% for sales by wholesalers.” Miccio said.

Ruger explained in a later interview that these taxes could cover the cost of extra traffic coming into the community from outside New Jersey. “When I spoke with a representative of the cannabis industry. He said that when a state legalized marijuana and neighboring states have not, there is not only the traffic that comes from the local community, but from nearby states as well,”

At the meeting, Karmazin shared his position that cannabis shops do not have to be located in Hopewell for residents to take advantage of purchasing it. “Certainly, they can drive somewhere else and get it,” he said. “I’m not in favor of the distribution of [cannabis]… not in my space, and I think that’s a moral and ethical question that we have to ask..as a community,” Karmazin continued.

The residents and the panel brought up the use of cannabis gummies several times. Cannabis gummies are a type of “edible” THC-infused candies that allows the user to feel the effects of THC without smoking.

Smith explained that these gummies are easy to hide and smuggle into schools. “You don’t know if it’s kids eating gummy bears that are just gummy bears or are they laced with THC. So, it’s really a frightening frontier for us of not being able to not necessarily control – control is a bad word because we don’t control our students – but just having some idea of what’s happening within our schools and our ability to help and support our students,” Smith said.

John Bunting, a Hopewell resident and medical marijuana grower explained that edibles have to go through strict testing before being allowed to be sold. “We have an edible product that we sell at the dispensary I work at, and the testing is beyond strict,” Bunting said. “There is a 5% [THC content] limitation under what the milligrams per piece of edible can be.”

Bunting explained that if the THC content went over that percentile, the product could not be sold. “So the key is education and the key is regulation, if we don’t have those things, you end up with people consuming products that are not safe,” he said.

Heidi Kahme, Chair of the Hopewell Valley Municipal Alliance, a group that coordinates and supports youth by providing teen job and community service fairs, student coordinated drug and alcohol prevention programs, and community-wide events, according to their website, explained that marijuana can lead to severe mental health problems and even overdose.

“With regard to the effects of cannabis on youth, a new pediatric study tells us ‘cannabis use disorder’ is common among adolescents and young adults with mood disorders, and is actually associated with an elevated risk of self-harm, overall mortality, and death by unintentional overdose in this already vulnerable population,” Kahne said.

However, CDC studies explain that it is almost impossible for someone to ingest enough cannabis to overdose. “A fatal overdose is unlikely, but that doesn’t mean marijuana is harmless. The signs of using too much marijuana are similar to the typical effects of using marijuana but more severe,” explains the CDC website.

Ruger explained in an interview afterward, that the Township plans to introduce an opt-out ordinance for consideration at the Township Committee meeting.

“An ordinance requires two readings. If the Committee adopts the ordinance on June 14, that would be the first reading. The second reading would likely be scheduled for the July 6 meeting. There would be an opportunity for public comment on the ordinance before the final vote,” Ruger said.

Hopewell is not alone in this hesitancy. One of the significant concerns is that there is no way of knowing how regulated this industry will be. This is because the Cannabis Regulatory Commission has the same August deadline as the municipalities in order to establish laws and regulations for this emerging industry.

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