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A tiny N.J. borough becomes a battleground for Big Marijuana and anti-weed forces

Tiny rural Clayton has become the battleground for Big Marijuana and anti-pot forces as it mulls a controversial application by Green Thumb Industries to open a cannabis cultivation and manufacturing center in an industrial park.

Open land in the Cenco Boulevard Industrial Park in Clayton, N.J. A company is proposing building a cannabis cultivation and manufacturing plant at the industrial park.
Open land in the Cenco Boulevard Industrial Park in Clayton, N.J. A company is proposing building a cannabis cultivation and manufacturing plant at the industrial park.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

In the tiny Gloucester County borough of Clayton, a battle is shaping up between Big Marijuana and organized anti-weed forces divided over whether a $10 million cannabis cultivation and processing facility should be built on vacant land in an industrial park.

Earlier this month officials hastily called a town meeting to discuss Green Thumb Industries' proposal and to quell rumors that borough lawyer Tim Scaffidi said were stoked by "false and unsubstantiated claims" published by the Clayton Free Press and mailed to the borough's 8,700 residents.  The publication relied heavily upon the remarks of David G. Evans, a special adviser to the Drug-Free America Foundation, a leading opponent of legalized marijuana. Evans was quoted as saying a marijuana operation carries "many proven negative impacts … on your home value, your children's health and safety, and the environment."

The applause and comments made during the heated meeting Sept. 13 suggested the crowd of more than 200 was equally divided over what one resident described as the "hot-button issue" of marijuana.  Would a marijuana facility bring increased crime, odors, and stigma, and send a wrong message to young people, or would the business bring 150 new jobs, provide tax revenue for the struggling town, and help people who are ill and could benefit from cannabis?

Clayton is the latest municipality to wrestle with whether it wants to host a marijuana business as New Jersey expands its medical-marijuana program and weighs legalization for recreational use.  Several towns at the Jersey Shore have passed ordinances banning such facilities, while a few others across the state have welcomed them.

The state Health Department recently announced that it will double the number of medical-marijuana facility licenses statewide to 12, in November.  It has received 146 applications and will select six. Moorestown, Cherry Hill, and Sewell are among the towns that have proposed sites under review.

Currently South Jersey has marijuana dispensaries in Bellmawr and Egg Harbor Township.

"Weed is what you're worried about?  Weed?" asked Joseph Toal, after a few other Clayton residents voiced opposition to GTI's project at the meeting.  Toal said studies show that cannabis helps people addicted to opiates, which he said deserve much more attention than a drug he said is relatively harmless.

In a letter to the Health Department last month, Clayton Mayor Thomas Bianco said he supports GTI's application to build a 50,000-square-foot facility in the industrial park on Cenco Boulevard because it is a national cannabis company with a solid reputation.  "GTI is publicly traded and possesses a market capitalization of more than $1 billion," he said. And, he added, "They have committed to hire local people."

The industrial park includes a hazardous-waste storage and transfer facility and is near two senior-citizen housing developments.

GTI currently operates seven grow sites across the country, including one in Danville, Pa.  During an appearance this month on Fox's MadMoney, GTI chief executive officer Ben Kovier said that his business was growing rapidly and that "there's a tidal wave of demand for this product."

GTI declined to say whether it has purchased land for the Clayton project, saying it has not yet been awarded a license.  For the project to go forward, GTI would have to get approval from the planning board.

Kevin Nesko, who publishes the Clayton Free Press with his wife, Bridget, said his publication examined the impact the project might have on the borough.  The former chairman of the borough's planning board said he gathered information from various organizations and quoted Evans because of his knowledge on the subject.  The pro-marijuana groups that Nesko contacted didn't "back their statements with information or statistics," he said, so he didn't quote them.

Evans, a Flemington, N.J., lawyer, said at the meeting that he had offered to represent residents and sue if the marijuana facility were approved.  He told the crowd that marijuana is still illegal under federal law and that GTI's plant could be construed as "trafficking" and racketeering.

During a later interview, Evans said that he doesn't normally sue in such cases, but is a consultant for lawyers who do.

Devra Karlebach, CEO of GTI's Rise New Jersey, said at the meeting that the facility would be state-of-the-art.  "We have never had an odor violation, or a security breach," she said.

One man in the crowd heckled her.

"I understand it's scary, an unknown," she replied.

One resident said she favors the project and said that the Clayton Free Press stories read like propaganda and Reefer Madness, referring to the cult film.

Bridget Nesko responded angrily to the criticism.  She said all of the information was thoroughly researched.

One resident said her husband died from smoking cigarettes and she could not understand why drugstores continue to sell these "cancer sticks" while medical marijuana is treated as taboo.

Another said bluntly, "I don't want it in my backyard."