The Trenton City Council on Thursday made significant reversals in its ordinance laying out legal marijuana sales, opting to include the city’s downtown for dispensary locations and doubling the number allowed to 10.
The ordinance passed 5-1 following a contentious, nearly five-hour special meeting that included a number of last-minute amendments, which spurred vigorous debate, including a few shouting matches, as well as a public input session with 28 speakers.
West Ward Councilwoman Robin Vaughn voted against the measure. Council President Kathy McBride, who sponsored the law, was on the virtual meeting for hours, but was absent by the time the final vote was taken.
Afterwards, Mayor Reed Gusciora said he was happy that, “good reason prevailed.” His administration was unable to get the expanded version in front of council before Thursday. “I am pleased that the council did the right thing,” he said.
The first reading of the ordinance, introduced earlier this month, called for five marijuana dispensaries in the city, and limited them to three areas – not including the downtown business areas.
That version was roundly criticized by some city officials, including Gusciora, and city business owners, including Ed “NJ Weedman” Forchion, who all argued that more dispensaries mean more financial opportunity for the city, and locations downtown would be a needed boon that hopefully would bring more visitors and trickle-down dollars to existing businesses.
Before the meeting, At-Large Councilman Jerell Blakeley pledged to add amendments for 10 dispensaries and the inclusion of the downtown district, and he did Thursday, following a blistering criticism of the city’s downtown.
Trenton’s downtown, “Is one of the worst downtowns I have ever visited,” he said. One can count the restaurants on two hands, the flagship business is a dollar store, and one cannot buy a TV downtown, but they can buy drugs,” he said.
“It’s shameful and perplexing,” Blakeley said, and launched into how legal cannabis could be an economic engine for the lagging downtown district. When he started to describe the amendments he was going to introduce, McBride appeared to interpret it as Blakeley actually introducing them, and they got into a loud shouting match over council procedure.
A few moments later, North Ward Councilwoman Marge Caldwell-Wilson, whose ward includes the downtown, signaled she was against any changes, saying she was not opposed to the cannabis industry, but the city needs to deal with several other issues first downtown, like homelessness, panhandlers, and addiction and mental health issues.
“This is very new to this city. We do not know what the outcome will be, and we need to walk slowly with this,” Caldwell-Wilson said. “I do not think the downtown is ready at this time.”
Trenton, and other towns, though, are up against a clock. New Jersey municipalities have until Saturday, Aug. 21 to pass local laws setting forth how many and where marijuana businesses can operate, and to collect surcharge taxes from the businesses. If they do not, they must abide by wider state rules.
When Blakeley introduced the amendment to increase dispensaries to 10, it passed 5-2 with McBride and Caldwell-Wilson voting against it.
By the time the downtown amendment was before them, Caldwell-Wilson voted for it, and McBride was absent. It passed 6-0.
In discussion on that, Blakeley noted that Forchion’s Weedman’s Joint business, across from City Hall on East State Street, would fall into the downtown zone. (Forchion would still need to go through the proper licensing.)
Blakeley said it would be “poetic justice” for Forchion to be a Trenton weed seller, as someone who “carried the mantle” for years on the repudiation of the war on drugs. “I think Weedman deserves it…and it would do right by someone who does right by the city.”
Other amendments that passed allowed dispensary employees to unionize if they wish, and reduced the restriction zone on marijuana businesses from 1,000 feet from a school to 750 feet.
Three amendments introduced by Vaughn failed. They included the adjustment of language of the permitted zones of dispensaries to exclude some residential areas, and requiring members of the City Cannabis Advisory Committee to be a longtime resident or business owner, not just for the past five years.
She also floated one that called for half of the dispensaries to be set aside for city residents, or for African Americans. The city’s two lawyers on the call, Edward Kologi and Wes Bridges, warned against it, saying such a move would not likely survive legal challenges, and be viewed as discriminatory.
Vaughn got especially angry when Bridges said such a restriction likely violates the New Jersey and United States Constitutions, for which she demanded proof.
Before the council started wrangling on the ordinance, only three of the public speakers, all city residents, called for the council to pass the ordinance that way it had been first introduced.
“What may work for other towns and cities may not work for Trenton,” warned Sonya Wilkins, who also mentioned crime and homelessness as more pressing issues.
The rest, many who were also residents, like Tracey Syphax, Harry Chapman, Austin Edwards, Michael Ranallo, Bill Kearney, and Darren “Freedom” Green, and Atalaya Armstrong, all spoke in favor of the council expanding the role of cannabis. Many urged the council to not to miss a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Chapman, a city resident since 1972, said he’s been using marijuana since 1968. He said he’s retired from a job he held for 37 years. “And I have an excellent credit rating.”
In arguing against limiting the dispensaries to five, Kearney said, “Imagine our city with one liquor store per ward, one hair braiding shop per ward – you can’t put a limit on this.”
“You guys represent us, you were put there by us, we are all in unison,” Kearney implored the council. “What else do you need from us?”
Among those in the cannabis industry or advocacy who spoke were Leo Bridgewater, Jasi Edwards, Ed Salzman, Phil Charles, and Charlana McKeithen.
Edwards, of Minorities for Medical Marijuana, urged the council to bring marijuana businesses to Trenton so the capital city can one again live up the “bygone era slogan” that adorns its famous lighted bridge, she said, “Trenton Makes, the World Takes.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: NJ Cannabis Insider is hosting an in-person day-long conference and networking event Sept. 23 at the Carteret Performing Arts Center, featuring many of the state’s leading power players. Tickets are limited.
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Kevin Shea may be reached at email@example.com.
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