Cannabis business owners express frustration over delays in receiving municipal approval from West Orange

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — Multiple cannabis business owners took the podium during the public comment section of the Sept. 6 West Orange Township Council meeting to express frustration regarding delays in the town approving their applications, and to ask for updates regarding when the task force will interview them and pass their applications to the council.

Councilwoman Cindy Matute-Brown, who is a member of the West Orange Cannabis Task Force, along with Councilwoman Michelle Casalino, West Orange police Chief James Abbott and others, addressed the delays before the meeting had even progressed to public comment.

“The cannabis task force did meet and review the applications before them. They did agree, they did have a quorum, they did agree to move an application forward; however, we were not able to get everyone in a quorum to have the interview process held because there were a few of us that were out of town and some recovering from medical procedures, so it was impossible, as much as we tried,” Matute-Brown said at the meeting. “We have to make sure that we’re loyal to the process and not just move ahead.”

The process involves the task force reviewing the applications, conducting interviews with the applicants, then recommending approval to the town council, with supporting documentation from West Orange attorney Mark Moon.

After public comments, Matute-Brown said, “Unfortunately I was not able to get everyone back in a quorum to have this interview before today. And while it was a discussion among some of the task force members to bring it here without the interview from the task force, I did not want to begin a precedent that or give the appearance that we were giving preference to anyone and not following the process and the procedures. So that is the delay.”

Still, the delay in approval is proving a source of frustration and even financial loss for the business owners.

West Orange resident James Jackson, of Yerrr Canna LLC, said he submitted his initial application in June, providing more information to the task force in mid-August, and is still waiting for an interview. 

“As you may know, Yerrr Canna is applying for an annual license. And in order for us to submit an application for an annual license to the state, proof of local support is required,” Jackson said. “Based on the experience of other cannabis applicants in town who received their approval in West Orange, the next step is a Zoom interview with the cannabis task force prior to the next town council meeting to provide enough time to get on the council’s agenda and provide for a proper amount of notification. It’s my understanding that previous applicants were invited to their interviews the same day as they completed their application after being given a chance to cure their application. 

“Now, I do recognize that we just completed a holiday weekend and a number of us have had children that started the school year today, including my three kids here in town, however it’s been over two months since Yerrr Canna has submitted its municipal application. And unfortunately, the delay in obtaining municipal support is causing our team a significant amount of funds every month,” he continued, adding that he has a responsibility to his stakeholders and hopes to be able to schedule the interview for as soon as possible.

Darnnelle Gibbs, the CEO of Pure Natural Vibes, submitted his application back in April.

“We have been waiting very patiently for almost five months for site approval. We told the task force how prepared we are to operate our store within the city of West Orange. I just also want to add again that we were approved by the state,” Gibbs said, adding that it was communicated to him that the task force has reservations about his business’ location. “I wanted to ask the members of the task force to please rethink their reservation about our location of 130 Main St., which is an approved zone as a standalone location.

“We are respectfully asking to be heard before both the cannabis task force and the council to use this location at 130 Main St. because there is literally nothing else available,” he continued. “We already have site control for over five months, we have been paying rent for this location for over five months, we have been paying insurance for this location for over five months, we have been paying the PSE&G bill for over five months, cable bill for five months, telephone bill for five months.”

Gibbs added that the location has a great design and security plan, and that the location’s neighbors and landlords are excited to welcome the business to the area.

Darnnelle Gibbs’ wife, Nordia Gibbs, also expressed frustration over learning that her business location may not be approved due to its proximity to another cannabis business. 

“There was nothing in the ordinance stating that proximity (was a factor), so I’m a little confused on that element,” she said. “How do I find a new location not knowing who’s submitted another application with another location? It’s a little hard. I’ve been driving up and down with my Realtor for the past two weeks. There is literally no inventory. We have had this site for five months. Our landlord is exceptional and excited to welcome the dispensary at that location, and I’m just looking for clarity on how to move forward.

“This is it for us. This is our lifeline here. I’m literally begging to just have a conversation to see where we go next from here,” she continued.

Matute-Brown explained the proximity consideration and advised that current locations are listed on the town website.

“Obviously we want every business to be successful, and, Ms. Gibbs, this may apply also to you, while it’s not written in the ordinance with respect to the proximity of the other locations, obviously we want all of our businesses to be successful.”

While Corey Dishmen, of The Library dispensary, has been having similar issues, he did praise the town’s officials for the hard work they have done so far.

“I want to publicly thank members of the council as well as the task force for the hard work and dedication that you guys have put in. I do want to add that our company is just as committed to this community, as well as our business and our families,” he said. “So I stand before you just to gain clarity. Like the previous speakers, we have submitted an application, we have cured it, we have secured a lease for a new property that has already been approved by the task force and we’re just at a standstill right now. It’s costing us dollars.”

After hearing from the business owners, Matute-Brown said she will continue to work to convene a task force quorum to move each application ahead, with special consideration going to the businesses that already have sites and are therefore losing money.

“I assure you we’ll have something before the next council meeting,” Matute-Brown said. The next council meeting is Sept. 20.

“This whole process has been such a learning experience. (Cannabis) was approved by the state and tossed to the townships and the cities to make up the rules that best fit where they live. It’s been a work in progress, and I feel like you’re paying the price for that. And it’s no fault to anyone, it’s just how it got rolled out in the state,” Casalino told the applicants at the meeting. “I just really appreciate all your patience and wanting to invest in the town. I know we’re being selective, but it’s for a good reason, to protect our residents and to make sure that we’re mindful, even of our investors. … We want to make sure that the ones we support are successful and they are in the right locations.”

According to Matute-Brown in a Sept. 12 email to the West Orange Chronicle, she is still waiting to hear back from task force members regarding their availability so they can meet with a quorum.

“James Jackson’s application was reviewed and he is awaiting his interview with the task force. Thereafter, if the task force is satisfied with the interview, then it will recommend to council for their review and consideration for the issuance of a resolution in support of the application. I anticipate this could be done before the next council meeting,” Matute-Brown told the Chronicle. “As to the other applications, it is my hope that we are able to review these during the same meeting. In this instance, the applicants applied directly to the state and were awarded a license, which imposes a timeline on securing a location and municipal support. The task force understands the financial challenges and timeline pressures of all of the applicants, and each will be given an opportunity for review; however, the council, upon recommendation from the task force, has supported three applicants — one of which has been approved and the other two are pending. 

“As a result, the task force took the position of waiting for the determinations to be returned by the Cannabis Regulatory Commission in order to know how many licenses will be awarded before issuing any additional letters of support. This position was taken because our ordinance provides for four licenses, and we did not want to overextend ourselves after having issued three resolutions of support. It is my understanding, however, that the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission would meet this month to complete their review of applications,” she continued. “We look forward to the opportunity to continue to review the applications and to meeting the applicants.”