New Jersey residents voted overwhelmingly to legalize marijuana more than a year ago, but they won’t be able to walk into a store and buy cannabis until later this year at the earliest.

The N.J. Cannabis Regulatory Commission continues to refine the state’s rules governing the various aspects of the cannabis industry in the state. As that process continues, town officials continue to evaluate whether to allow cannabis businesses in their communities, while at the same time fielding proposals from various businesses who want to operate within their borders.

About 67% of New Jersey voters approved the legalization of adult-use recreational cannabis in a referendum in the Nov. 2020 election. Last February, the state legislature and Gov. Phil Murphy passed a law legalizing recreational cannabis, establishing the Cannabis Regulatory Commission and creating six different licenses for cannabis businesses. The law also set a deadline of Aug. 21 for communities to pass ordinances regulating those cannabis businesses. 

Under the state law, if a town did not specifically prohibit each class of license by the deadline, those businesses would have automatically been allowed to operate in the municipality for five years. Officials in most of the towns not allowing marijuana businesses cited the Aug. 21 deadline as the reason for the ban.

Now that the state is clarifying its regulations, a number of towns in the Mercer County area are implementing rules allowing various cannabis businesses.

The licenses that businesses can seek in connection with the recreational cannabis market are: Class 1, cannabis cultivator; Class 2, cannabis manufacturer; Class 3, cannabis wholesaler; Class 4, cannabis distributor; Class 5, cannabis retailer; and Class 6, cannabis delivery. (For more detail on the licenses, see the graphic on the following page).

Last month, the state began officially accepting applications from Class 1 and Class 2 cannabis cultivators, manufacturers and testing laboratories—receiving hundreds of applications within the first few hours, according to multiple news reports.

The Cannabis Regulatory Commission has set a March 15 date to begin receiving applications from Class 5 retailers looking to sell recreational marijuana to the public. It has not announced application dates for Class 3, Class 4 and Class 6 licenses.

License applications are being accepted on a rolling basis, and there is no established limit on the number of cannabis business licenses available statewide. Under the state law, the number of Class 1 cultivators throughout New Jersey is to be limited to 37 licenses until February 22, 2023. Additional licenses will be considered by the CRC at that point.

With the application process underway, municipal officials are evaluating whether to introduce recreational cannabis in their communities. For communities with preexisting medical dispensaries, many of those businesses are looking to expand their current usage to include recreational cannabis sales.

As of the Aug. 21 deadline, only four area communities—Bordentown City, Ewing, Lawrence, Pennington and Trenton—had allowed the retail sale of cannabis within their borders. Meanwhile, Bordentown Township, East Windsor, Hamilton, Hightstown Borough, Hopewell Borough, Hopewell Township, Princeton, Robbinsville and West Windsor and Plainsboro all passed ordinances banning the retail sale of the drug.

When questioned about whether he thought the process of legalization has been too slow, Lawrence Township Municipal Manager Kevin Nerwinski said that the state’s diligence in implementing the rules is necessary.

“It is not fair to say there is a hold up in the sale of recreational marijuana in New Jersey,” Nerwinski said. “The law was only recently passed. There is much regulatory work that has to be done before the sale of recreational cannabis can start… They are making progress. I think N.J.’s cautious and measured approach to introducing the cannabis industry to the state is appropriate.”

Lawrence Township has adopted an ordinance permitting the retail sale of cannabis and delivery service businesses in the Regional Commercial and Highway Commercial zones, and limits the number of licensed recreational cannabis retail dispensaries to a maximum of two.

Zen Leaf, a Lawrence medical dispensary, opened in June on Route 1 with a selection of edibles, flowers, vapes and more. 

According to Nerwinski, the company has expressed interest in having retail sales on the same property. “In my discussions with the manager, the business is doing well, just as expected.” 

Nerwinski said that officials from cannabis-related businesses have for the past few years, “expressed great interest in our community because of its ideally situated location within the state and access to main highways.” 

“I fully expect that there will be continued interest from all classes of cannabis businesses looking to operate within Lawrence Township,” he has said.

In Ewing, Chicago-based Justice Cannabis Co. received a permit to cultivate and process medicinal cannabis, with its storefront, operating under the brand Bloc Dispensary, set to open at 1761 N. Olden Ave. Formerly known as Justice Grown, Justice Cannabis Co. broke ground on the property in 2019.

When New Jersey allows for existing licensees to apply for retail or other expanded uses, Justice Cannabis Co. will likely follow suit, according to Chuck Lantini, Ewing’s planning and zoning officer.

Latini said that Justice Grown’s medical dispensary is “moving along” in terms of construction, which could open in the next few months. The company's cultivation site on Prospect Street is a little farther behind because of the “complexities” involved with growing and setting up a new environment.

“As far as the township is concerned, we thank them for taking on these challenging sites, because one of them was vacant for a couple decades,” Latini said. “I think once they’re up and running, and the place is vibrant with the jobs and activity going on, I see that whole area on Prospect Street start to prosper.” 

There are already temporary grow pods in the parking lot of the cultivation site, helping Justice Cannabis Co. function as operational before construction is completed.

Ewing Mayor Bert Steinmann has also appointed a committee whose membership includes town officials and members of the public to review businesses that want to locate in the community.

Like Nerwinski, Steinmann has said that the town has been approached by a large number of businesses that want to locate in the township.

Bordentown City is allowing two cultivators, two manufacturers, two retailers and one delivery business. The cultivation and manufacturing facilities are limited to industrial zones, and retail sales will be limited to a stretch of Routes 130 and 206 in the township—a choice made to minimize the effects of parking and traffic.

“We’ve taken a measured approach to allow a limited number of businesses to locate in carefully targeted areas, which will pave the way to revitalize several underutilized properties and at the same time, provide long-term financial benefits to taxpayers in the city,” Bordentown City Mayor Jennifer Sciortino said.

Also created with the ordinance is a local Cannabis Advisory Committee, a group of seven who will help vet applications for local licenses, then make recommendations to the city commissioners.

* * *

Hopewell Township is one of a number of communities that amended or is in the process of amending its rules since banning cannabis before the August deadline.

Hopewell passed an ordinance banning all cannabis businesses before the August 21 deadline. Officials then considered the issue further. 

In September, the township amended its ordinances to allow cultivation and manufacturing businesses in the VRC zoning district. The operations would only be allowed on lots of 50 acres or more. In addition, they would have to be located no more than two miles from the interstate interchange, on a state or county road and have a maximum lot coverage of 15%.

For now, the township is allowing only one cannabis business of any type. A single entity with cultivation manufacturing operations would be allowed if both are located on the same site. The other classes of licenses continue to be disallowed in the township.

In Hamilton, Mayor Jeff Martin and Township Council amended the town’s ordinances to allow increased cannabis business operations, including one retail shop.

At the August deadline, the town had voted to allow up to two Class 1 cultivation businesses, which were limited to industrial, manufacturing or research and development zones in town.

On Dec. 21, the township council approved measures upping the number to 6 cultivation businesses, 6 manufacturing businesses, and one of each type for wholesalers, distributors, delivery services, retail dispensaries and medical dispensaries The ordinances also clarify that no cannabis cultivation activity is allowed to take place outdoors.

Bianca Jerez, chief of staff, said that Martin was expected to sign the ordinances.

The council has also endorsed applications to the Cannabis Regulatory Commission for Class 1 cultivator and/or Class 2 manufacturer licenses for Blaze Products LLC, Trenton Equity Holdings LLC and ZY Labs. 

It also endorsed 58 Thomas J. Rhodes Industrial Drive LLC, Theory Wellness of New Jersey Manufacturing Inc. and Sun Extractions Inc. for manufacturer licenses. 

Bordentown Township passed an ordinance prohibiting recreational cannabis establishments in town by the Aug. 21 deadline. Now, a new ordinance is being crafted for consideration during the first quarter of next year, said Michael Theokas, Bordentown Township administrator.

The proposed change would not specify a company or property, although Curaleaf, which is currently operating a medical cannabis dispensary in town, could add retail sales to its current operation if it chooses to apply for a license.

The Curaleaf facility, which is located at 191 Rt. 130,  within the township’s designated highway commercial zone, opened as the company’s 109th facility in August. Company officials appeared before the township committee near the end of last year with a presentation proposing a plan to add recreational marijuana sales to its facility.

Mayor Steve Benowitz said he has been impressed with Curaleaf’s operations thus far. “I had the opportunity of actually taking a tour of the (medical cannabis) facility, which was eye-opening, quite frankly,” he said. “I know people had a lot of fears with [its] security. Let me tell you, it looks like Fort Knox inside.”

Princeton decided to ban all cannabis businesses and appointed a task force to study the question of legalization. The task force issued a report in November recommending five commercial areas that could be zoned to permit cannabis retail businesses.

These include the area surrounding the Dinky train station; the Jugtown neighborhood at the intersection of Nassau and Harrison streets; the central business district; Witherspoon Street, between Green Street and Leigh Avenue; and Route 206, near Cherry Valley Road.

The task force also recommended that the town allow no more than three retail medical and adult-use dispensaries (Class 5 license), but no licenses for the other categories of cannabis businesses. 

The council had not made any decisions to implement the recommendation as of Dec. 22, and was faced with opposition from a number of members of the community opposed to cannabis dispensaries.

In Trenton, the City Council and Mayor Reed Gusciora passed an ordinance allowing cultivation, manufacturing, processing, distribution and dispensary businesses. The ordinance includes the city’s downtown area for dispensary locations and allows up to 10 retail locations.

Some controversy erupted in mid-December when the city council failed to vote on a resolution supporting a license application by Northeast Alternatives, NJ for a cultivation and manufacturing facility to be located on Breunig Avenue.

“In August, City Council overwhelmingly passed an ordinance allowing cannabis businesses to operate in Trenton after hearing extensive testimony on the tremendous potential cannabis has for local businesses and residents,” Gusciora said. “Unfortunately, all of that public support has been rendered moot because of Council Leadership’s absurd control over the agenda on city business.” 

He added: “I’m concerned that Council will squander the unique opportunity cannabis brings to Trenton.” 

* * *

Robbinsville is one town that continues to maintain a ban on all cannabis businesses. Township attorney Bruce Darvas said in an email that the town is waiting for more clarification before taking any action.

“It is my understanding that the N.J. Cannabis Regulatory Commission has not yet issued all of its rules for the various types of cannabis licenses (I believe we are still waiting on rules for wholesalers, distributors, and delivery services),” he said. “Until the commission issues its remaining rules, the township will not take any further action.”

He added that once the CRC issues its rules for all of the various licenses, the township will reconsider the issue and determine which, if any, license types will be permitted.

“It is important to note that when adopting the ordinance prohibiting all cannabis business in the township, the township did not take a position that it was opposed to allowing such businesses in the township,”  Darvas said. “It was only opposed to making that final decision without knowing what rules would apply to such businesses.”

John Nalbone, Robbinsville Township’s communications and public information officer, said that Community Development Director Paul Renaud and Business Administrator Joy Tozzi told him that the township has received numerous calls from businesses interested in operating in the town, “but without further clarity on the state’s rules we have not officially taken any meetings.”

East Windsor, Hightstown Borough, West Windsor and Plainsboro also have not reconsidered their bans on cannabis businesses.