Mayor Andre Sayegh fully supports the opening of various marijuana businesses in Paterson, viewing it as a potential engine to create jobs and bring revenue into to municipal coffers.
“This is an emerging industry we have to capitalize on,” said Sayegh during a public meeting on Tuesday night. “This affords brown and black young men an opportunity for employment in the city of Paterson in an emerging industry in our country that was legalized by a resounding margin by the Paterson voters this past November.”
But not everyone agrees with Sayegh. Almost two dozen people spoke at the meeting, half of them in favor while the other half against.
“We in the community, regardless of colors, do not support use or distribution of marijuana,” said imam Mohammad Qatanani, the most influential Muslim leader in Paterson. He said the harm far outweighs the benefits. He described marijuana as a “threat to the community.”
“I’m for cannabis,” said Eric Fry, a lifelong resident of Paterson. He said cannabis has helped him with his medical condition. “It helped me and got me through.”
Fry was joined by multiple employees of Green Thumb Industries (GTI), which owns a grow facility and a dispensary in Paterson, to speak in favor of allowing marijuana businesses. GTI has made it a point to employ local residents at its two facilities.
“We haven’t had a single issue with our dispensary,” said Sayegh, speaking of RiSE, the dispensary owned by GTI.
RiSE opened in 2019. It faced serious opposition when it tried to open in South Paterson. It eventually opened at a site on 5th Avenue, near Route 20.
RiSE has been paying approximately $25,000 per month to Paterson from the 2 percent tax it charges buyers. Paterson can impose 2 percent tax on cultivators, manufacturers, and retailers. It can impose a 1 percent tax on wholesaler, according to officials.
City Council members were divided on whether to allow recreational marijuana businesses in Paterson.
“We have a tough decision to make soon,” said councilman Luis Velez.
“Where do Patersonians benefit?” asked councilwoman Lilisa Mimms. She suggested allowing pot businesses in the city will require taxpayers to pay for more police resources as large number of people flock to those shops.
Some suggested using half of the revenue collected from marijuana businesses to fund recreation programs for young people.
Councilman Alex Mendez opposed a clause in the ordinance that grants the power to grant local marijuana licenses to the economic development director. He said ultimate approval should be left to the City Council not an unelected government bureaucrat.
“We’ve been elected by the people,” said Mendez. “You have to come back with something better.”
Mendez also wanted a list of criteria so businesses seeking licenses are not arbitrarily rejected.
Councilman Al Abdelaziz did not like a part of the ordinance that allows marijuana businesses to open in any commercial zone in Paterson.
“The big contention is the retail component,” said Abdelaziz. “I’d look at the retail component and pump the breaks.”
Abdelaziz recommended stricter zoning for where retail shops can open.
“I’m for opting out,” said councilman Shahin Khalique. “We might open up a bigger problem.”
Khalique suggested a closed-door meeting before approving the ordinance.
Davila, who twice before served as council president, agreed a closed-door meeting is needed. But a closed-door meeting would violate New Jersey open meetings law.
“I get calls every day for jobs,” said councilwoman Ruby Cotton. She said she can see the benefits of having cannabis businesses.
“It’s here to stay,” said council president Maritza Davila. She said marijuana has been legalized in New Jersey and cannot be outlawed. She said some speakers erroneously thought the city is passing a law to legalize marijuana.
“Marijuana was legalized and we have to face that,” said public safety director Jerry Speziale.
Deputy economic development director Osner Charles said Paterson was among the cities most affected by the so-called war on drugs. Those cities were identified as “impact zones” to remedy the ill effects of the war on drugs.
Charles said if Paterson opts out it will “miss out on the benefits.”
“The city cannot prohibit its constituents from receiving cannabis,” said Charles. He suggested other cities will benefit by selling to Paterson residents. At the same time, no decision will mean pot shops can “run wild” in the city,” he said.
Paterson has until August 21 to adopt an ordinance. If it fails to take action cultivation, wholesale, and distribution facilities will be allowed in industrial and commercial zones. Next opportunity to opt out will be in five years.
The council president is attempting to build consensus with her colleagues. She plans to hold a special meeting to further discuss the ordinance before time runs out.