After a long, and at times contentious and passionate public comment period during its July 26 public meeting, Cherry Hill township council formally opted out of cannabis sales within municipal limits.
The governing body had originally decided to opt out during a public meeting two weeks prior, with several members of council stressing that a future opt-in was possible once the state’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission laid down strict guidelines and regulations.
Municipalities had been given a deadline of Aug. 21 to take action and decide on permitting cannabis sales.Towns that elected to allow sales are locked in for the next five years, while those that elected to opt out could opt back in at any time. Any town that failed to take action before the deadline would be treated as if it selected to opt in.
Embedded in Gov. Phil Murphy’s February legislation was a provision that allows municipalities to levy a sales tax of up to 2 percent on cannabis transactions, meaning municipalities can keep those funds and apply them where needed.
“I don’t think there is anyone in this room who would sign a contract without reading the fine print,” noted Council President David Fleisher. “We’ve had very healthy discussions, and I think there was consensus that we’ll take this pause. We wanted to make sure we had a timeline in place so we could be comfortable with tackling the issue.”
Although the seven-member council voted for temporary prohibition, Councilwoman Carole Roskoph presented a timeline for her colleagues, administrators and township public safety officials to become well enough informed and take a definitive stance by early next year.
“What I want is, whatever decision we come to, that we can explain to the public how we got to that decision,” she offered. “How we got to the hard yes, and how we got to the hard no.”
Included in the proposed timeline Roskoph presented: If the commission’s rules and regulations are released on or about Aug. 21, all council members will have to read them by mid September and pose any questions they have to the mayor’s office. By Oct. 1, the date of his retirement, Police Chief William “Bud” Monaghan’s will provide council with a report on what he sees as the main public-safety issues. By Nov. 1, Director of Community Development Cosmas Diamantis will provide a report about zoning impacts.
Other timeline items: By Dec. 1 council will have a conversation about what to do with the 2-percent tax. By Jan. 1, council will hold a town hall meeting where the public can address its concerns, and then by Feb. 1, council will have enough information to make a decision.
Roskoph stated her feeling that all of the above dates, except Oct. 1, were somewhat flexible.
“I understand why we waited, but I don’t want to wait past six more months,” she added.
With only one more chance to make residents’ voices heard, public opinion on the issue proved to be lengthy and polarizing from a variety of sources.
Residents who had spoken previously against the opt-out, in light of Fleisher’s admission that council would need until the end of the year to fully “wrap their arms around” all the details of possibly opting back in, continued to push for quicker action, as well as advocating for future tax revenue to be applied to Cherry Hill schools.
Several homeowners, including Sarah Joslin and Jamell Rosario, spoke about the potential dangers of children being exposed to marijuana smoke and cannabis products in places like the mall and on residential street corners.
In requesting the ordinance be tabled, Jeff King of Eatontown remarked, “I heard a lot of disturbing ‘Reefer Madness’-like rhetoric, and I disagree with some of the assertions. Gateway to horror and psychosis? It’s just not true. It’s just as good as the revenue from (Somerdale-based brewers) Flying Fish.”
Ilana Yares expressed her disappointment with council for a perceived lack of foresight, and for failing to advocate for a quicker response from the state on rules and regulations related to cannabis, noting, “2 percent of zero sales is zero dollars.”
In her closing comments, Roskoph stressed the importance of having all voices heard, and giving the public every chance to contribute. But her opinion came with a caution that council’s ultimate resolution on cannabis will not please everyone.
“It’s healthy to disagree, but the purpose of democracy is to come to consensus,” she said. “And so, I believe with all of who I am, that is what we will do as a community on this issue.”