BYRAM — Marijuana sales and businesses would be temporarily banned under an ordinance introduced by township officials Tuesday, but not everyone is on board.
Mayor Alex Rubenstein believes the growing, manufacturing and distribution of cannabis should be allowed in the township, stating there is "no reason" to restrict it in industrial, and possibly certain residential zones.
"This is a question of individual property rights," Rubenstein said during the virtual council meeting. "These types of operations are often in non-descript buildings and the public is not able to tell what is going on with it nor are they visiting it."
"Who are we to tell a property owner or dictate to them what they can or can't use the property for?"
Rubenstein, who has served as the township's mayor since 2018, also is in favor of retailers operating "tasteful" pot shops, with reasonable conditions set forth by both the council and planning board.
But he was the lone member of the non-partisan council opposed to the resolution: Council members Raymond Bonker, Harvey Roseff, Cris Franco and Jack Gallagher support the ban.
New Jersey became the 13th state to legalize marijuana in February when Gov. Phil Murphy signed three bills passed by the Democratic-controlled Legislature. That followed last November's ballot question, when voters backed legalization by a 2-1 margin.
In Sussex County, 66% of voters, or 57,583, voted for the referendum, with 34%, or 29,158, opposed.
Municipalities have until Aug. 21, six months from when New Jersey officially legalized pot, to decide whether they will allow sales within their borders or pass an ordinance banning them. If they miss that deadline, growing and selling will automatically be permitted for a five-year period.
Bonker, a lifelong Byram resident, feared missing the deadline would mean Byram would be taking an "unacceptable risk" and may end up allowing unwanted activities.
He also raised concern about undesirable businesses flooding into the Route 206 traffic corridor, the only area in the township that can be developed under the township's master plan. The remaining 98% of the township is off-limits.
The area has seen significant development over the years — the planning board approved the construction of a Wawa in January — with more projects on the way.
"We do not need to aim low for pot shops, just like we do not need to aim low for sexually explicit businesses or any other inferior enterprises even if they are legal," Bonker said. "We need to aim high and we also need to be able to hold our collective heads up high and not become partners with businesses that merely want to sell a gateway drug that gets people high."
"Just say no. The children of Byram and the grandchildren of Byram deserve better than this."
Marijuana can damage the lungs, with regular use raising the risk of chronic bronchitis, Bonker said, citing the American Lung Association.
He also cited decisions by neighboring towns to ban all marijuana-related businesses. In Mount Olive in Morris County, township officials passed their own ordinance Tuesday evening forbidding pot-related commerce. The Green Township Committee unanimously passed an ordinance on April 19.
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Franco said that she believes it is everyone's personal decision "what they do or don't do with their bodies." But residents who voted to legalize marijuana last fall "didn't necessarily have in mind to have dispensaries all along the town," she said.
Both Gallagher and Roseff said that passing the ordinance protects their options in the future, but each said it would be worth exploring it again in the future.
There was a 79% voter turnout among Byram residents last November, with 68% voting to legalize marijuana.
The mayor said it was reasonable to believe that the majority that voted for legalization understood it was likely retail pot shops would start appearing in the township.
"The people have spoken, shouldn't we listen?" he said.
Responding to Bonker's assertion that marijuana is unhealthy, Rubenstein countered: "What other unhealthy things should we ban now? Should we go after large sugary sodas at McDonalds?"
Rubenstein presented a motion to table the ordinance, which attracted no votes.
"I find it disappointing that we haven't even taken the time to engage our planning board or the public in a public forum," the mayor said, complaining that the ordinance was only briefly discussed at one prior meeting, with the topic "buried in the agenda."
"Hopefully the public will turn out to the second reading of this ordinance," he said.
Byram residents will have a chance to comment on the proposed ban on June 15, when the measure if up for a final vote.
Lori Comstock can also be reached on Twitter: @LoriComstockNJH, on Facebook: www.Facebook.com/LoriComstockNJH or by phone: 973-383-1194.
Source: Byram NJ marijuana ordinance: Mayor, council disagree (njherald.com)