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Legal in the State or Not, Some Cities Ban Marijuana

In New Jersey, dozens of localities have outlawed sales or possession of the drug even before the legislature legalizes it.

Person smoking a marijuana joint.
Momentum toward legalization of marijuana continues to grow. That doesn’t mean local officials have to like it. In fact, many of them have taken action to ban the possession of pot, including in states where recreational use is becoming acceptable.

New Jersey lawmakers are widely expected to legalize pot this year. They have determined that the drug is relatively benign and undeserving of criminal penalties. The fact that legalized marijuana sales have helped boost tax revenues in other states doesn’t hurt.

But about 50 local governments in New Jersey have passed laws banning marijuana sales or possession within their borders. Nearly all the bans were put in place last year in anticipation of state action on the issue. “It came from the publicity of the state legalizing it,” says Robert White, the mayor of Saddle Brook, N.J., which imposed its ban in October. “We had a lot of residents who talked to myself and other council members, saying they didn’t want to see marijuana sold in Saddle Brook.” A similar dynamic exists in Michigan, where about 80 communities have opted out of the legalization law adopted by voters in November.

White admits that as a former police officer, he may be biased against legalization. He’s heard the argument that marijuana is no worse than tobacco and alcohol, but wonders why state officials want to encourage another potential problem. Pot has gotten much stronger over the past 20 years, he points out. Because recreational marijuana was illegal everywhere until five years ago, the large-scale studies that are common before pharmaceuticals are legalized have not been conducted. 

The National Academy of Medicine has suggested that there could be real dangers to marijuana, but that there’s not enough information to know for sure. Barnegat, N.J., Mayor Al Cirulli fears that the movement of marijuana out of joints and bongs and into flavored products such as gummy bears will make it more appealing to children. “It’s kind of ironic,” Cirulli says. “You see commercials on television about drug addiction, and here we have a governor and a legislature that are going to allow this because they think they’re going to make money.”

Both White and Cirulli recognize that local bans may have limited effect. As a practical matter, banning marijuana within small jurisdictions won’t be much of a deterrent if there’s a dispensary operating one town over. And, even if the final state law doesn’t preempt local governments, there are likely to be lawsuits. 

Still, quite a few local leaders in New Jersey are determined to do what they can to keep pot out of their towns. “The only thing we can do is not to make it accessible,” Cirulli says. “We’ll fight them every step of the way.”

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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