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Cannabis news -- Here's what it's like to have a marijuana dispensary in your town





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Here's what it's like to have a marijuana dispensary in your town

EDITOR'S NOTE: Interested in the marijuana business industry? NJ Cannabis Insider is a new premium intelligence briefing that features exclusive weekly content geared toward entrepreneurs, lawyers and realtors. View a sample issue.

Frank Filipek's colleagues called to tell him it would be "political suicide". A medical marijuana provider wanted to grow and sell cannabis in Bellmawr, and Filipek, the town's mayor, was considering it.

Filipek said he was skeptical, concerned that bringing a marijuana business to Bellmawr would hurt his town. Residents were also worried.

"People in town were hitting Facebook, saying marijuana is coming to Bellmawr," Filipek said recently, recalling the controversy. Several residents protested at town meetings and planning board hearings, he said.

Bellmawr was several years ahead of the curve, but in precisely the same place towns all across New Jersey now find themselves: Weighing whether they want to open their doors to marijuana providers.

And as the state has begun expanding its medical marijuana program, while lawmakers debate legalization, many more towns have opted to ban marijuana businesses than welcome them, even before legislation has passed and they know what shape the industry will take.


Filipek and other town officials eventually decided to allow a medical marijuana facility to open in Bellmawr, a decision the mayor now says the town has not come to regret.

"Truth of the matter is they lived up to more than we expected," Filipek said."I haven't gotten one complaint about the place."

Compassionate Sciences, now called Curaleaf New Jersey, opened a cultivation facility and dispensary in October 2015 in a tatty industrial section of Bellmawr, where Route 42 hits Interstate 295.

George Schidlovsky, president of Curaleaf, described the area before the facility opened as "bombed-out." Today, the industrial character remains, flooring suppliers and a plumbing business are nearby, but Filipek and Bellmawr Police Chief Bill Walsh say Curaleaf has undoubtedly improved the area.

"They cleared it up a lot, it looks better than it used to," Walsh said.

Since opening, Curaleaf has moved its retail operation across Coolidge Avenue into a sterile, 6,500-square-foot facility more reminiscent of a doctor's office than a marijuana dispensary.

Its original building is still used for growing marijuana, and Curaleaf is far along on two 8,000-square-foot expansions of that space in an effort to boost production. Schidlovsky estimates that Curaleaf has spent upward of $20 million at the property.

Walsh said that Bellmawr police have surprisingly few problems at the Curaleaf properties, considering some 500 people come and go from the dispensary each day.

"Really parking accidents were the only thing the police get involved in," Walsh said, adding that Curaleaf provides its own security, something required of all medical marijuana providers in the state.

Other providers in the state have also forged close relationships with the police in their towns. Garden State Dispensary in Woodbridge has retired police on its security team, and general manager Aaron Epstein said Woodbridge police come by regularly and have conducted onsite drills in the past.

"We've had a great relationship across the board so far," said James Froehlich, chief of staff of Breakwater Treatment and Wellness, the dispensary in Cranbury. "The police are always responsive, friendly, and supportive of what we are doing here in any interaction that we have had."

But for the towns that have recently banned marijuana businesses, security has been a secondary concern. It often appears to be more about the lingering stigma of marijuana than any singular issue. And the should-we-or-shouldn't-we decision will only heat up in the next several months.


In July, Gov. Phil Murphy moved to double the size of the medical marijuana industry, calling for six more providers to join the existing six. In addition to Bellmawr, Cranbury and Woodbridge, there are dispensaries in Egg Harbor, Montclair and Secaucus.

Applications for the six additional alternative treatment centers were due to the Department of Health on Aug. 31. The department received 146 applications for those six slots.

Part of the application required prospective marijuana operators to get some sort of endorsement from the town in which they wished to locate. With many towns hesitant to embrace marijuana, even the medicinal variety, applicants declined to share which towns were open to it.

That has also led to some prospective marijuana operators to reach out to Filipek to see if he'd be open to more than one dispensary. For now, the Bellmawr mayor said he's happy with just the one.

"I've been getting calls from companies that want to locate in Bellmawr," Filipek said. "Some (towns) are worried about what it would look like, but we did our homework."

But the upcoming expansion of New Jersey's medical marijuana program is likely just the beginning. In June, the state Health Department proposed rules that would allow it to issue separate licenses for cultivation, processing and retailing of medical marijuana. The program now only allows operators to be vertically integrated, meaning they do everything in-house.

Should those rules be adopted, it's likely that by early 2019, the Health Department will be accepting applications for these separate licenses, meaning more towns will be pressured to make a decision.

Schidlovsky said he thinks more towns should look to the relationship Curaleaf has with Bellmawr before making a decision.

"A lot of communities are just not seeing (the benefits)," he said. "They're concerned about stigma, concerned about impact on community appearance.

"I think they need to open up a bit and ask a couple of questions about the impact of medical cannabis."

Then comes the question of recreational marijuana.

Lawmakers have been debating marijuana legalization since early this year and another bill is expected to be introduced this month. Murphy has said he wants to legalize marijuana before the end of the year.

Should recreational marijuana be approved by lawmakers, it would open up the door for potentially hundreds of new marijuana businesses. Even some towns that have been amenable to medical marijuana have turned their backs on recreational.

Glenn Johnson, mayor of Cranbury, said the town has had no issues at all with Breakwater. Still, the town in March passed an ordinance to ban recreational marijuana.

So what about Bellmawr, among the first towns to welcome marijuana in Jersey? Officials say they want to know more before they make the call, but their experience with medical has made them more open to it.

"They (Curaleaf) have run a pretty good operation, so I assume" that would continue under recreational, Walsh said, but added that he still has concerns about recreational marijuana, namely people driving under the influence of pot.

Filipek said he couldn't say yes or no on recreational at this point, but that he would trust Curaleaf to handle it.

"I think Curaleaf knows exactly what Bellmawr wants, so if they did recreational I think they'd do it right," he said.

Are you interested in the N.J. cannabis industry? Subscribe here for exclusive insider information from NJ Cannabis Insider.

Payton Guion may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @PaytonGuion. Find NJ.com on Facebook.




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