Since last summer, local boards and officials in at least five other municipalities - Camden, Westampton, Maple Shade, Bellmawr, and Upper Freehold - rejected plans for marijuana operations after residents expressed fears of increased crime and "potheads" roaming their neighborhoods.
"People are finally realizing this is a legitimate thing," said Thomas, explaining that the state requires security measures and background checks for owners and employees, restricts the drug to patients with certain serious diseases, and allows the drug to be dispensed only after the reduction of a component that causes euphoria.
New Jersey is one of 14 states - Pennsylvania is not one - that allow medicinal marijuana. Initially, Gov. Christie delayed implementation, then local opposition kept the novel businesses from getting approvals.
A nonprofit company in Montclair, Essex County, was the first to obtain local permits several weeks ago and now awaits final state approvals.
Egg Harbor Township Mayor James McCullough said the township zoning officer issued a permit two weeks ago to developer Leo B. Schoffer when he asked to lease his warehouse to a marijuana dispensary. The 85,000-square-foot warehouse is in an industrial park off Delilah Drive between Atlantic City International Airport and the city's landfill.
The dispensary meets the requirements for the "general commercial" zone. It will be in a remote area with only a few scattered houses nearby, McCullough said. "It's not something that we can deny," he said. "The medical profession of the U.S. and New Jersey recognizes marijuana is a treatment for many ailments and relieves the suffering of people with terminal illness. . . . There's a medical need, and I think it will go forward and be a successful thing."
Unlike mayors in other communities who had to wrestle with the issue, McCullough said that he had not received calls from emotional residents. Instead, he has gotten calls from "people who said, 'Thank goodness we'll be able to apply for and purchase the medical prescription that we need.' . . . These people are desperate."
In Westampton, Burlington County, Mayor Sidney Camp and other officials last year told Compassionate Care that it could open a dispensary in a former lighting factory without special approvals. But when residents in a senior citizen complex down the road raised objections, Camp changed his mind and said the nonprofit would have to go before the zoning board.
Last month, the board rejected the proposal, saying the zoning ordinance did not say a marijuana dispensary could open in that section of the town, though it permitted commercial and manufacturing uses. Thomas filed a lawsuit, calling the decision capricious. A hearing was scheduled for next month.
On Wednesday, Thomas said his company would drop the lawsuit. It has signed a contract with Schoffer, a philanthropist who told Thomas he embraced the idea of opening a dispensary and helping sick people.
McCullough said the dispensary would be an asset to Egg Harbor.
"I don't have any concern for what anyone else says. . . . There will be naysayers out there, but I haven't heard any, and anyone of intelligence knows it will bring relief to people who are suffering," he said.
Thomas said the state Department of Health and Senior Services approved the location for a dispensary and soon would begin conducting background checks of owners and the 50 employees the company plans to hire. After he obtains a license to operate and completes a $500,000 renovation of the warehouse, he expects to begin growing pot in May.
The harvest should be ready for sale in October, he said.
Contact staff writer Jan Hefler
at 856-779-3224, firstname.lastname@example.org,
or @JanHefler on Twitter.
Read her blog at www.philly.com/BurlcoBuzz.