HOWELL TOWNSHIP – No doubt that weed control poses its share of challenges when it comes to cultivating plants. For the owners of one local farm, weed control of a different variety stands in the way of the crops they’d like to harvest.
Municipal and state regulations control who can legally cultivate cannabis on their land. The owners of Merrick Farm hope to bypass the obstacles to keep their business alive and add some extra tax revenue to the township coffers.
The first hurdle comes as a result of the local governing body’s decision to outlaw all six marketplace classes of cannabis establishments in July 2021. Authorities were under the gun to prohibit marijuana businesses by August – or miss the opportunity to ban or limit operations for five years.
Meanwhile, it’s far easier to amend or even lift the prohibition ordinance. Howell authorities reassured residents the ban was temporary as the issue required more discussion. The township held two separate public hearings covering a wide array of topics – including community impact, types of available licenses, and zoning considerations.
“I sent them all kinds of studies, including information from a course taken by New York physicians who plan to prescribe marijuana,” said Edward McNamee, a Merrick Farm partner. “They told us before they made any decisions last year, they needed to have a lot more studies done about how it’s going to affect children and other things.”
The cannabis prohibition ordinance remains in place, and McNamee and his partners say they need answers.
“We have a shot at getting a conditional growing license,” McNamee shared. “I wanted to do it on the farm but we will be forced to look elsewhere if the township doesn’t act.”
Merrick Farm owners do not have plans to seek a cannabis retail license for medicinal or recreational purposes. Instead, they solely want to expand their farm to cultivate and manufacture cannabis.
According to McNamee, Howell risks losing four sources of additional income from Merrick Farm by keeping the ban in place. This includes registration fees, licensing fees and a two percent share of the cannabis wholesale revenue.
“The real estate taxes will go up on the farm as well,” explained McNamee. “Any acre that we grow cannabis on has to be fully assessed, rather than pay farm assessed taxes.”
McNamee, Merrick co-owners Juan George and Susan Keymer, appeared at the town council meeting this month and signed up to speak during the public comments’ session. George and Keymer attempted to yield their five minutes each to give McNamee additional time to address the governing body.
While appropriating time to another speaker isn’t part of the meeting protocol, Deputy Mayor Pamela Richmond said she’d allow McNamee some extra time. He spoke for a total of eight minutes before he was asked to step down.
McNamee emphasized that Merrick Farm solely wants to grow cannabis on the farm and manufacture it. He said that if you grow cannabis, you’re not permitted to sell it to the public.
“We’re requesting this to help the farm to survive and prosper,” McNamee said. “We’ve been struggling so far.”
As part of his presentation, McNamee assured authorities there would be cameras on the premises and the police would have access. Security would be put in place to ensure the operation was safe.
According to McNamee, seven national companies do hundreds of millions of dollars in cannabis sales. He said global cannabis business sales currently total $20 billion and estimates the number will rise to $100 billion by 2025.
McNamee compared the limitations on buying cannabis as even more challenging than purchasing alcohol. He also reminded the town council of packages he sent to the governing body that included materials suggesting marijuana was less addictive than alcohol.
“Cannabis is here now, and we cannot prevent it from happening,” said McNamee. “The discussion should be, do you want to get any revenue from this or not get any revenue from this.”
In concluding remarks, McNamee pointed out that illegal marijuana threatens public safety, exploits labor, and harms the environment and people’s health. Merrick Farm would contribute to bringing a safer product for consumer use.
“The township has already passed an ordinance which prohibits the growth and sale of cannabis in the township,” said Township Attorney Caitlin C. Harney. “You are requesting that the township revisit this ordinance and allow for the production of cannabis. That will have to be an internal township discussion.”
Christa Riddle, who serves as Howell’s Alliance Coordinator, reminded the governing body that she participated in discussions regarding cannabis and licensing last year.
“I had requested a cost-benefit analysis before moving forward that is fact-based,” Riddle said. “Again, the concerns remain – lower risk perception with legalization comes with an increase in youth use.”
Riddle said the number of cases of youth with psychosis and mental health issues related to high potency marijuana products have skyrocketed.
However, McNamee insists the problems are related to illegal cannabis production and distribution.
“A cost-benefit analysis is going to show exactly how much we bring in versus how much it would cost to enforce our regulations,” said Riddle.
Merrick Farm became operational in 1908 and began growing fresh local produce in 1995. The sign outside the farm’s Merrick Road location lists garlic, berries, lavender and honey as part of its selection of fresh produce and herbs.