Pot: Can Meadowlands zoning affect East Rutherford's legal weed ban?

East Rutherford is the latest municipality to ban the sale of recreational marijuana in an attempt to get around proposed state legislation to make it legal.

The council voted unanimously to prohibit any dispensary intended for the sale of non-medical marijuana, or any of its psychoactive derivatives, throughout the borough. Hemp products are excluded. 

"As a father of two children, and knowing the possible effects of marijuana being a leeway into other drugs, I know it’s something we don’t want in our town," said Councilman Sam Stallone. "That’s for sure."

Should state lawmakers legalize marijuana for recreational use, a conflict may arise in the area due to the Meadowlands District Zone.

The zone, overseen by the New Jersey Sports and Exhibition Authority, overlaps with the borders of Carlstadt, East Rutherford, Little Ferry, Lyndhurst, Moonachie, North Arlington, Ridgefield, Rutherford, South Hackensack and Teterboro, as well as several Hudson County municipalities.

The zone authority's control of the area is relegated to building issues, said Mike Gonnelli, mayor of Seacaucus and secretary of the Meadowlands Mayors' Committee. For matters of land-use, he said, local laws would take precedence.

Medical cannabis on display at the Harmony Dispensary in Secaucus, Monday, June 18, 2018.

"Most of their zoning is for set-backs, heights or how many units" are allowed in a mixed-use development, he said. "They don’t usually regulate what's a prohibited use.

"Ninety percent of our town is in the Meadowlands zone, but what we do is up to us," he added.

East Rutherford's borough attorney, Gerald Salerno, doesn't see it as clear-cut and said the overlap creates some complexity.

"The bottom line is that the jurisdiction and zoning of the NJSEA preempts, in that district, any East Rutherford zoning regulations," Salerno said.

"However, there is a strong coordinating effort," he added. "Anytime the NJSEA proposes a zoning change, the municipalities have input into that decision. They may not have a final say," but East Rutherford would have "a seat at the table."

Several bills to legalize recreational marijuana have been proposed by state legislators. One bill, sponsored by Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union County, offers towns the right to opt-out of the bill.

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If the state legalizes recreational marijuana use, Mayor Jim Cassella said East Rutherford may need to pass two ordinances to opt out of legal sales. One for the borough and a second to cover the Meadowlands district.

A spokesman for the Meadowlands district said "it would be premature for the NJSEA to comment as there is no application before us to review."

Carlstadt and East Rutherford are the only municipalities within the district to have passed local ordinances against some form of marijuana sales.

Throughout the county, Woodcliff Lake, Lodi, Mahwah, Hasbrouck Heights, Garfield and Washington Township have all passed a similar ordinance.

Washington also passed a ban of medical dispensaries and Garfield left its ordinance vague, potentially affecting medical sales as well.

"I lean both ways in regards to that," said Stallone. "For me, I could care less as far as medicinal, I just think some people use that as an excuse. In someways, I do believe it helps some people, but I think some people just abuse it."

Before Tuesday's council vote, several residents in attendance were ambivalent toward the ban.

Some said they did not mind medicinal marijuana, but reserved some concern for full legalization.

Former councilman Michael Homaychack, who now resides in Wyckoff, said he doesn't want dispensaries near schools.

While marijuana dispensaries typically require customers to pass through a locked vestibule by showing identification before entering the sales area, Homaychak said he worried customers may resell their purchases to schoolchildren.

Even if a marijuana user has no history of dealing drugs, Homaychack said that opportunity could be a powerful inducement.

"If you need money, sure," he said. "You sell your prescription. Just like with opiates."

But in that situation, higher motivating factors such as poverty, would remain a separate issue from marijuana legalization, countered Dianna Houenou, policy council with the New Jersey chapter of the ACLU

She is unaware of any studies that discuss whether proximity to schools would motivate casual marijuana users to sell their own purchases to nearby students.

Houenou said it's very easy for children to get marijuana. "These extreme hypotheticals and scare tactics are not a reason to keep arresting people for a behavior that the majority of New Jerseyans and Americans believe should be legal."

[An earlier version of this article attributed quotes from Councilman Sam Stallone to his colleague Philip Sorbera, whose name was misspelled.]