From the recommendations of the mayors’ task force subcommittees to the questions from municipal officials, it was clear from the “Marijuana Legalization: A State & Local Perspective” session at the League of Municipalities Conference in Atlantic City, that the two biggest concerns are revenue and public safety.
It was also apparent that there’s a need for information and education about the industry.
“It’s time we really start to talk about this in out hometowns because it’s coming,” said panel moderator Colleen Mahr, incoming president of the League and the mayor of Fanwood. “The time now is to engage.”
The more than 500 people in the audience heard from mayors who chaired task force subcommittees, including Mayors Wilda Diaz of Perth Amboy, Tim McDonough of Hope, Gary Passanante of Somerdale and Michael Venezia of Bloomfield, as well as Jeff Brown, assistant commissioner of the Medical Marijuana Program, New Jersey Department of Health; Todd M. Hay, regional vice president of Pennoni and chairman of the Branchburg planning; Hugh O’Beirne, president of New Jersey Cannabis Industry Association; and Kabili Tayari, Office of the Mayor, Jersey City.
In regard to public safety, Diaz and Venezia focused on impaired driving, criminal activity targeting legal marijuana businesses, the black market and keeping minors safe.
“Safeguards need to be put in place to protect our innocent citizens,” Venezia said during his presentation.
Questions asked of the panelists included concerns about public consumption, workplace consumption, testing under-the-influence drivers and law enforcement issues.
O’Beirne tried to explain how legalization can help combat public safety concerns.
“We feel we’re part of a solution in regards to the illegal market,” he said, speaking for the industry. “A regulated market is the best way to reduce the negative effects of an illegal black market. We feel the ability to out-compete the black market is a better option than out-policing them – which hasn’t worked.”
The issues regarding law enforcement also bled into the discussions of towns’ need for revenue and State Senate President Stephen Sweeney’s commitment to make the state tax rate 10 percent and an additional 2 percent max going to municipalities.
“We don’t think that’s enough,” McDonough said. “If we’re going to have to do the enforcement of this, there’s no way we can do all of this under the 2 percent [levy].” His task force recommended a 50 percent share of tax revenues returning to local towns.
Sweeney responded later in the day at a different session.
“We’re going to pay for your officers to get trained. You’re going to get a percentage of something that you don’t have now,” Sweeney said.
“I think that there’s not a hard line in the sand, we would like 5 percent,” Mahr said. “We don’t understand why 2 percent is the line in the sand, to be honest with you.”
O’Beirne tried to allay some of the fears and concerns regarding the cannabis industry.
“I’m sure we’re perceived as drug dealers,” he said. “We live in the communities, in these municipalities. We understand there’s a great deal of skepticism about our industry and about us. We want to take great pains to be a force that contributes good not just by out-competing the black market but we will also specifically take steps to integrate ourselves into the communities to benefit the communities beyond our economic progress.
“We also seek to ensure that for an industry that’s also going to make money in a legal context with respect to something that so many people lost their liberty and property over –disproportionately based on race – that we want to be model corporate citizens.
“The initial shock of coming out of our collective prohibition hangover and having these legal industries goes away rather quickly as we realize there’s no there there when it comes to deleterious fears.”