MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — After more than two hours of testimony — much of it from residents vehemently opposed to the idea — Township Committee on Monday, Aug. 5, unanimously approved issuing a letter of support to a proposal for a medical marijuana facility on Indian Trail Road.
The letter is the first step in what promises to be a long process for the Massachusetts-based company Insa Inc. to build a new facility to grow and sell cannabis where there is now a long-vacant seafood processing plant at 35 Indian Trail Road. The letter is part of the process of getting a New Jersey license as an Alternative Care Center, which is how the state describes a medical marijuana facility.
The large property is assessed at over $1 million. Mark Zatyrka, the CEO and one of the owners of Insa, said the company plans to spend about $10 million on a new building of between 30,000 and 40,000 square feet. As proposed, marijuana plants would be grown inside under artificial light, dried and processed on site and sold to people with New Jersey medical marijuana cards from a dispensary on the property.
The company also plans to prepare marijuana edibles and other products there.
The project could mean 100 or more jobs in Middle Township. Zatyrka said most of those would go to local residents.
Many of the closest neighbors were not convinced.
Brandon and Tiffany Dunn’s farm is near the proposed location. They have young children, with another on the way, and worry about the increased traffic and potential for crime if the facility is built, they told committee members.
Most of the speakers had concerns about the proposal, peppering the committee and police Chief Christopher Leusner with questions about the potential for increased cases of intoxicated driving or of people trying to break into the facility.
“Marijuana is a problem. The Middle Township jailhouse is loaded with young kids with this dope and reefer and whatever it is,” said another woman who lives near proposed site. “We don’t need that around us. We’re trying to help our kids grow up to be somebody and keep them on the track, but it’s going to be a big problem. So you better think hard before you open the door.”
The proposal calls for the demolition of the former La Monica Brands seafood plant, which has been vacant for years. If the state approves a license as part of an expansion of medical marijuana facilities, Insa’s plans would then come before the township Planning Board before construction could begin.
Mayor Tim Donohue said not everyone is going to agree with every decision.
“We’re looking at a site that’s been blighted for over a decade, that was in terrible condition when it was in operation and was a bad neighbor to all of those people there. We’re looking at putting in a brand-new business, creating 100 jobs, bringing relief to people who need this medical marijuana, and doing it in a way that people will be safe,” Donohue said.
Not every speaker was against the proposal. The Middle Township Chamber of Commerce and the township Economic Development Committee have endorsed the plan. Hugh Giordano, a representative of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 152 said the proposal could bring good, high-paying jobs to the area.
Several residents spoke of the benefits of medical marijuana to some patients, and the distance needed to travel from Middle Township to reach the nearest facility.
Nina McCausland told committee members that she loves the piano, but her arthritis is so severe she can’t play. She now uses CBD, a derivative of the marijuana plant that is now available over the counter, which she said has helped enormously.
Zatyrka said he used opioid-based painkillers for most of his life because of a chronic condition but has turned to medical marijuana.
“It changed my life,” he said. “I didn’t realize how many side effects I had from opioids until I got off of them.”
Two township police officers visited an Insa location in Massachusetts, as did Committeeman Michael Clark and township administrator Kimberly Krauss. Leusner told residents he has reservations about allowing recreational marijuana but is not concerned with approving the Insa plan. He said he has not seen any reports of increased intoxicated driving from medical marijuana.
“For a medical marijuana facility to be developed and opened by Insa, I do not see any public safety concerns,” he said.
“I was quite satisfied with the presentation and with the facility and with this company,” Clark said at the meeting. “I can’t speak for all companies and I can’t speak for all facilities, but I thought it was top-notch.”
Committeeman Ike Gandy said having a 10-year-old son was a big factor in his decision to support the project. He said from what he’s seen, school kids would not even know marijuana was grown at the site.
“From what I’ve seen so far, he wouldn’t even know it was there. He’d have a better chance of knowing that they canned clams or that we have a landfill in the middle of Burleigh Road,” he said. Later in the meeting, he said it would be no different than a CVS or Walgreens opening in a neighborhood.
There is a key difference, in that marijuana remains illegal for any use under federal law.
Some residents accused the committee members of already having their minds made up before hearing their input. Donohue said the township has been working on the proposal for a month, but said the township publicized the meeting in order to get input.
“We’re bringing the public into the process because we want to hear from you. We weren’t required by law to have this public hearing or to do a press release or to post it on Facebook or to share it on our website. We wanted public input,” Donohue said.
At one point, he suggested that if residents are unhappy with the decisions made, they could vote the current members out of office and elect someone else.
Others worried that the company could sell marijuana for the recreational market if New Jersey decides to legalize. Township officials said that would require new township approvals.
Both Donohue and Gandy said they would never vote to allow recreational marijuana sales at the site. Clark declined to commit, saying he could not say what he would do if New Jersey votes to allow marijuana sales without a medical recommendation.