Split between council deepens regarding cannabis in Orange

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ORANGE, NJ — Members of the Orange City Council are currently at odds regarding the immediate future of cannabis in the city. Council members Jamie Summers-Johnson and Adrienne Wooten support allowing cannabis businesses into the city as soon as is feasible, while the five remaining council members prefer a wait-and-see approach.

New Jersey required municipalities to opt out of allowing cannabis retail by Aug. 21 or be subject to unknown state regulations and requirements for the next five years. The New Jersey League of Municipalities recommended that its members opt out for the time being “to preserve local governments’ rights to govern adult-use recreational cannabis sales within their communities.”

The council voted 5-2 to opt out of allowing cannabis retail in the city on Aug. 4, but Mayor Dwayne Warren — who was unable to be reached for comment by press time — vetoed that decision on Aug. 14, telling the council that he felt banning cannabis retail was not in Orange’s best interest. Six days later, on Aug. 20, the council majority members who voted for the opt-out gathered in front of City Hall and overwrote Warren’s veto. The council members explained that, while they support cannabis retail in town, they want to wait to ensure that proper regulations are in place.

A virtual council meeting was to be held on Aug. 20 for all seven council members to discuss this issue, but Warren reportedly canceled this meeting, a move that some council members said may have been illegal.

While Summers-Johnson and Wooten agree with the council majority that Orange needs to get cannabis right, they feel that a ban of three years, as mandated by the ordinance, is too long.

“A ban of such length of time would deprive Orange residents of the benefit of an income stream alternative to property taxes for that period of time,” Summers-Johnson said on Aug. 22. “Instead, we could just regulate the amount of cannabis businesses, their locations and when they operate. If we ban cannabis businesses for three years or any significant length of time, they will just open in neighboring towns and those towns will derive the tax benefits. Even if you ban cannabis businesses in Orange, the cannabis itself can still be delivered into Orange. It is just the taxes that will be paid to other towns.”

According to the cannabis legislation, while municipalities who did not pass ordinances by the Aug. 21 deadline to opt out of allowing cannabis retailers in their towns must wait five years before passing opt-out ordinances, towns that did opt out by the Aug. 21 deadline can opt back in at any time.

Summers-Johnson explained that, with the increased tax revenue from cannabis retailers, Orange could relieve the tax burden on homeowners, and improve and expand services, such as upgrading the library.

“The public has been clear; they voted overwhelmingly in favor of cannabis, but then this cannabis ban was proposed and, instead of having a discussion with the community in terms of what regulations they wanted, we’ve had to galvanize the community to stop the ban,” she said. “Councilwoman Wooten and I have been involved with the community since mid-March on this issue, and all we can say, after many meetings, after being involved in the current petition that is circulating, is that Orange residents are overwhelmingly in favor of having regulated cannabis businesses here and an opportunity to reap the benefits of cannabis tax.”

On Aug. 20 in front of City Hall, Councilman Weldon Montague III clarified that there is no ban and no one wants to ban cannabis; the opt-out is to provide time for Orange to write responsible legislation and work with the community.

“I just want everyone to know that Weldon Montague is in favor of the cannabis legislation,” Montague said Aug. 20. “I just want to do it responsibly. I want to know how many distribution places; I want to know everything about it before we roll it out in our community. It is a definite yes if we get the legislation together and we put it up for a vote, then I will be voting (it) in, but we have to do it responsibly.”

A few days later, on Aug. 23, Montague said that Orange would ideally have held a collaborative workshop to work everything out.

“We’re not trying to raise taxes. We want taxes to be lowered,” Montague said Aug. 23. “We want to do it responsibly.”

Council Vice President Tency Eason repeated that the council majority is in favor of cannabis retail in the city but added that she hopes the council will be able to work with the mayor to create comprehensive legislation; regardless, however, Eason said Orange will move forward with legislation.

“All we’re waiting for is legislation. We’re not against cannabis coming to Orange, but it has to have some guidelines, some structure and we have to pass responsible legislation and make sure we take into consideration our children, our schools, our faith-based organizations, our seniors — everyone that will be affected,” Eason said Aug. 20. “All we want to do is put a hold on it and stop the madness until we get legislation in place.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to provide clarifying information about the cannabis legislation.