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SHAMONG – Mayor Michael Di Croce has high hopes for his Pinelands community — if New Jersey voters support legalizing marijuana in Tuesday’s election.
“We want to be the “pot capital” of New Jersey,” said Di Croce, who thinks marijuana could be a lucrative crop for Shamong’s farmers and a source of jobs and tax relief for its residents.
He noted the 44-square-mile town already has an agricultural base, and that a vast aquifer beneath its forested landscape could provide ample water for legal pot cultivation.
“I think this could be very good for Shamong,” the mayor said.
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Di Croce, an attorney, doesn’t envision marijuana plants sprouting in fields like the town’s current crops of corn, fruits and vegetables. Instead, cannabis growers would raise the cash crop in secure greenhouses, he said.
But the mayor acknowledged his plan for Shamong — a Burlington County town with about 6,300 residents — is far from certain.
Across the state, voters in the Nov. 3 election will give an opinion on amending New Jersey’s Constitution to legalize the personal use of cannabis products by adults. A ‘yes’ vote would likely lead to a legal framework for a new industry overseen by the state’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission.
The commission, established last year, already oversees New Jersey’s medicinal-marijuana program, according to the state Department of Health.
It allows the cultivation of medicinal marijuana only at “permitted alternative treatment centers,” the agency noted.
The state Department of Agriculture “at this point” has no guidelines for the cultivation of marijuana, said spokesman Jeff Wolfe.
The New Jersey Farm Bureau has taken no position on the ballot question, noted Peter Furey, the group’s executive director.
“However, if the voters pass the referendum, there would be opportunities for some growers and the idea of growing in greenhouse or warehouses is legitimate and fine by us,” he said.
Indeed, much of New Jersey’s agricultural activities already is happening indoors, said Furey.
Greenhouse growers across the state produce ornamental plants and flowers with a wholesale value of more than $400 million per year. That’s “the biggest part” of a statewide farming and livestock industry with an annual wholesale value of about $1.1 billion, said Furey.
Greenhouse operations allow farmers to have multiple harvests in a single year, with each crop nurtured under carefully controlled conditions, Furey said.
“Growing outside is a pain in the neck anymore,” he observed.
New greenhouses in Shamong would likely be allowed under rules that govern land use in the environmentally sensitive Pinelands.
“Most activities that are undertaken exclusively for agricultural purposes do not require an application to the Pinelands Commission,” said Paul Leakan, a commission spokesman.
For instance, the Commission requires no application to install irrigation wells or to construct greenhouses or other buildings “that are exclusively for that agricultural purpose,” he said.
Any agricultural use would still have to meet restrictions imposed by the township’s land use ordinance and the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan, he said.
“For example, a wetland could not be cleared and filled for the purpose of growing marijuana or locating (an) agricultural building,” said Leakan.
But potential marijuana growers in New Jersey could face another obstacle, said Furey.
Their leafy crops would continue to be illegal under federal law.
“We have taken a position of wariness and caution as long as the feds have a prohibition,” Furey observed.
“So far, there’s been no enforcement (of federal law against state-sanctioned marijuana sales elsewhere),” he said. “They’re kind of co-existing but that’s a cloud that would hang over anyone who’d invest in this.”
The federal government two years ago loosened its regulation of hemp, a cannabis plant with very low levels of the compound that causes a high for marijuana users.
In New Jersey, hemp was grown this year on 81 field acres and two acres under glass, according to the Agriculture Department. There were 59 licenses for growers and 13 for processors, it said.
Jim Walsh is a free-range reporter who’s been roaming around South Jersey for decades. His interests include crime, the courts, economic development and being first with breaking news. Reach him at email@example.com or look for him in traffic.
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