A New Jersey agriculture panel has decided that medical marijuana may be legally grown and processed on state-preserved farmland, including about 23,000 acres in Burlington County.
The State Agriculture Development Committee issued a statement Thursday clarifying its position on the controversial crop, stating that “medical marijuana is considered an agricultural crop based on New Jersey agriculture statutes. Therefore, it can be grown and processed on a preserved farm.”
But the committee also ruled that growing the crop would not be subject to the protections typically granted to commercial farmers under New Jersey’s Right to Farm Act and that it would remain off-limits on farms preserved with federal funds.
The committee’s reasoning was that growing marijuana is prohibited by the federal government and that the National Resources Conservation Service has decided that it will not permit pot to be grown on any farm that was preserved with federal Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program money.
Only 138 of the state’s 2,042 preserved farms have been protected with federal dollars, according to the State Agriculture Development Committee. Five of them are in Burlington County.
As of August, 186 Burlington County farms totaling 23,604 acres were in the state preservation program.
Typically, the county and town where a preserved farm is located also contribute toward purchasing the farm outright or buying its development rights from the owner.
The state committee, which is made up of 11 appointed farmers and residents, also specified that while medical marijuana could be legally grown on most protected farms, it could not be dispensed or sold there.
“Medical marijuana dispensary sites essentially will serve as medical treatment facilities rather than farm markets,” the committee statement said. “Therefore, medical marijuana dispensaries cannot be considered farm markets, and a grower cannot sell or distribute medical marijuana from a preserved farm.”
Spokeswoman Hope Gruzlovic said the committee decided to issue the clarification after receiving inquiries from nonprofit groups looking for sites to locate growing operations for the state’s medical marijuana program.
Six nonprofit groups were selected by the state Department of Health and Senior Services to launch the program.
Representatives from two of the groups have investigated sites in Burlington County.
Earlier this year, the Compassionate Care Foundation inquired about available farmland in Chesterfield for marijuana cultivating before deciding to lease a warehouse in Westampton for both growing and dispensing operations.
The foundation is expected to appear before Westampton’s Land Development Board next year to receive the necessary approvals.
Compassionate Sciences sought approval from Maple Shade’s Zoning Board last month to open a medical marijuana dispensary in a vacant furniture store on Route 38. The board decided it was not an appropriate use for the building.
At the time of the application, Compassionate Sciences said it was also looking at farms in the county for growing operations but did not specify any locations.
A spokesman for Compassionate Sciences was unavailable for comment Tuesday.
Although the county typically contributes funding for each farm preservation project, its Agriculture Development Committee would be unable to overrule the state’s decision to permit the cultivation of drugs on preserved land.
County spokesman Ralph Shrom said the county panel would still likely be required to approve any attempt by a medical marijuana group to set up growing facilities on a county-preserved farm because of the significant amount of new construction the operation would require.
“This will probably become an issue moving forward because of the nature of the activity,” Shrom said. “We anticipate farmers would have to put up a lot of outbuildings (for medical marijuana).”
Burlington County Sheriff Jean Stanfield researched the issue this fall after Freeholder Mary Anne Reinhart raised the idea of the county’s generating revenue by growing medical marijuana on some of its preserved land.
Stanfield said providing security at just one site likely would cost the county more than $1.2 million based on regulations published by the state Department of Health and Senior Services.
Reinhart countered that her proposal would not require the county to expend funds on security because the land could be leased to one of the approved nonprofit groups, which would be required to provide security measures on-site.
Reinhart, the lone Democrat on the five-member Burlington County Board of Freeholders, was defeated in the November election. Her term ends Dec. 31.
Outside the county, a group of residents in Upper Freehold, Monmouth County, has spoken out against a proposed medical marijuana farm on preserved land.
After the State Agriculture Development Committee’s ruling, Assemblywoman Mary Pat Angelini, R-11th of Ocean Township, promised to introduce legislation that would outlaw growing and harvesting the drug on preserved farms.
David Levinsky: 609-871-8154;
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