Medical marijuana dispensary may open without council’s approval

HILLSIDE, NJ — New Jersey’s legalization of marijuana use has resulted in the state needing to license new dispensaries to meet the needs of more than 100,000 medical marijuana patients. That a dispensary may be coming to his township took Hillside Council Vice President George L. Cook III by surprise.

“I was looking at a Hillside Facebook page, as I normally do to keep on top of residents’ issues, when I came across an article about some medical marijuana dispensaries possibly getting licensed in New Jersey,” Cook said on Friday, Feb. 26. “As recreational marijuana is a big issue right now, I read the article and was surprised that a medical marijuana dispensary could possibly be licensed to come into Hillside. That was my first time hearing about it.

“I was shocked to read that, due to a New Jersey Department of Health regulation, three prominent members of the community could speak for the community on whether or not a dispensary was wanted,” he continued. “I was upset that such a regulation would exist that allows a dispensary trying to come into town to essentially bypass the governing body and the residents of Hillside without getting their input.”

The Cannabis Regulatory Commission, which will oversee the industry, has six months to enact rules and regulations before it will start accepting new licensees for recreational businesses. Further, a state Superior Court Appellate Division decision rejected the claims of several medical marijuana dispensary applicants whose plans were disqualified by the state Department of Health in 2019 on technical grounds. ZY Labs, one of the original eight plaintiffs, had been rejected in its application to open a dispensary in Hillside because it didn’t include written approval, but the appellate court ruled those letters satisfied the Department of Health’s requirement for “approval of the community or governing body of the municipality.”

“I have no idea as to why we weren’t notified, and I hope that this wasn’t an effort by someone to deliberately bypass the people of Hillside and the governing body,” Cook said. “I believe that there needs to be a regulation stating that the governing body of any community must be notified once an application to get a license to open a dispensary in their town is submitted. I reached out to both Sen. Joe Cryan and Assemblyman Jamel Holley on this issue. Both were surprised that the governing body wasn’t notified and said that they would look into it.”

Cook said he had heard rumors as to whom two of the three members of the community may be, but had chosen not to spread these rumors, other than to say he didn’t think they should be able to speak for an entire community of 23,000 people. He said he was disappointed the council hadn’t been informed about this dispensary from the beginning.

“To be quite honest, someone was trying to sneak in an open window, instead of coming through the front door and being transparent about their interest in coming to Hillside,” Cook said. “I believe that gives the community a sign of what type of neighbor they would be if they were to get into town. I think this was a case of the Council not being informed. We have a right to know and so do the residents of Hillside.

“I personally have no problem with a medical marijuana dispensary in town, as I know that there are people suffering from pain or chronic illness that find relief through medical marijuana,” he continued. “But with that said, any decisions on both medical and recreational marijuana should only be made with community input. Residents have a right to have some say as to what comes into their community.”

On Friday, March 5, Hillside Council President Gerald Pateesh Freedman said that, in much the same manner as Cook, he has “strong feelings” about a medical marijuana dispensary possibly coming to Hillside without the knowledge of the council.

“I’m not aware of the community members who wrote the letters regarding this matter. The township was not part of the litigation,” said Hillside Mayor Dahlia Vertreese in a statement released to Union County LocalSource on Friday, March 5. “What’s important to me is, we evaluate this new legislation and come up with a plan that represents what the people of Hillside want.”

Regarding this matter, on Monday, March 8, New Jersey Department of Health’s assistant commissioner of medical marijuana, Jeff Brown, said, “The department doesn’t comment on litigation, nor on pending requests for applications for alternative treatment centers.”