Camden rejects medical marijuana dispensary

Posted: March 06, 2012

After listening to arguments raised by two local institutions, Cooper University Hospital and Campbell Soup Co., the Camden zoning board has denied a request that would have allowed the conversion of two vacant buildings into a medical-marijuana operation.

Frank Fulbrook, a community activist and former zoning board member who pushed for the use variance, said Tuesday that he was "very disappointed" by the 6-0 vote this week.

"The city had an opportunity to create 50 to 100 new jobs with a preference for Camden residents, and they threw it away," he said. "So now we have two vacant buildings that aren't benefiting anybody."

Ilan Zaken, who owns the properties and the nearby Sears building, had argued that a marijuana farm and dispensary would be an appropriate business in the light-industrial zone.

New Jersey passed a law two years ago that permits prescribing marijuana as a pain reliever for patients with cancer and other serious diseases, but no dispensaries have gotten the approvals needed to open.

Lawyers for Cooper, the medical complex a couple of blocks from the proposed site, told the board that a marijuana operation at Federal Street and Newton Avenue would be detrimental.

In areas of the country where such facilities exist, neighbors "have cited problems including offensive odors, fire hazards, trespassing, theft, violent encounters between growers and persons attempting to steal plants, robberies of customers, negative impacts on nearby businesses, nuisance problems, and increased DUI incidents," Lori Shaffer, a Cooper spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

State officials do not expect the same problems to arise in New Jersey because of the law's stringent requirements, including 24-hour security at dispensaries and growing operations, background checks on operators, and screening of patients.

Proponents of the measure cited medical studies that said marijuana treatment was needed for pain relief and nausea, especially by patients receiving chemotherapy.

Anthony Sanzio, spokesman for Campbell, said the company recognizes the medical benefits, but believes the location is inappropriate. The company's headquarters is a block from the site, and Campbell is a lead redeveloper of the neighborhood, he said.

A marijuana business "would not be conducive to attracting tenants," he said, explaining that Campbell plans to build an office park in the area that would stimulate business in the city.

Zoning officer Edward Williams, who is also Camden's director of development, planning, and zoning, said he recommended that the board reject Zaken's proposal because it was "not compatible with the uses in that district."

The zoning ordinance does not "specifically" allow for marijuana dispensaries, Williams said.

"If that specific proposal is not part of the language, I have the opportunity to deny it," he said.

Camden is just the latest New Jersey community to reject the novel business. Only one community - Montclair, Essex County - has given its approval, but the proposed facility there awaits a green light from the state.

Last week, a nonprofit marijuana business that has been turned down by Upper Freehold and Plumsted, both in central New Jersey, got a cool reception from a third municipality.

The legality of such business operations is an issue that courts should address, Jackson Township Solicitor Stephen Foran said at a council meeting. Though the federal government considers such operations illegal, the Obama administration has said that it would not prosecute medical-marijuana facilities that comply with state laws.

Jackson officials said they would have to study the issue before considering plans by the Breakwater Alternative Treatment Center.


Contact Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JanHefler. Read her blog, "Burlco Buzz," at www.philly.com/BurlcoBuzz.

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