Jersey City's the sky's the limit policy on marijuana dispensaries is suddenly meeting with resistance in the Heights, where residents are concerned about issues ranging from teen smoking to aesthetics.

As of March 13, the city’s Cannabis Control Board has approved 44 marijuana dispensaries including a disproportionate number — 14 — in Ward D.

In November, the City Council voted down an ordinance that would have capped the number for the city at 55. Ward D Councilman Yusef Saleh was outspoken in his opposition to the limit. “I don’t think we’re at a place we need to be for the southern part of the city” he said.

But if the South Side has too few, according to some residents the Heights has too many dispensaries and smoke shops, which they charge, sometimes sell cannabis as well.

Central Avenue alone will feature seven “pot” stores assuming they all receive final approval (or “endorsement”) by the City Council. Were the stores distributed evenly across the city’s neighborhoods, each ward would have six or seven, say critics.

Cannabis dispensaries on Central Ave.

Compounding the problem, they say, are the stores’ locations and the proliferation of other shops in the area dedicated to consuming tobacco one way or another.

Some neighborhood residents believe such a high concentration of “pot” and vape stores could transform their family-oriented community into a smoke and weed destination.

Monica Plotka, who has spent the last two decades in the Heights, says she’s not opposed to the decriminalization of cannabis. “It’s part of our world and a lot of people partake. But it’s a whole different ball game when it’s coming fast and furious into the neighborhood, especially with some vape shops poised to become dispensaries,” she said.

According to city officials most of the proposed dispensaries are only a few hundred feet apart rather than the 600 feet they are required to be by law.

With three dispensaries on Central Avenue approved by the City Council and four applications pending, the main commercial street in the Heights is quickly becoming the most clustered cannabis corridor in Jersey City — something even the CCB and the council expressed concern about at the March 7 meeting City Council meeting.

Jersey City’s governing body has put a temporary hold on considering new endorsements of cannabis dispensaries and/or cultivators pending a review of what city business administrator John Metro has called as “inconsistencies” in the city’s rules for applicants.

Another resident, Samantha Myers, is puzzled over the sudden influx of nicotine-friendly businesses that, she says, appear to be clustering in the city’s commercial corridors within each ward.

In fact, one three-quarter-mile stretch of Central Avenue boasts nine stores selling mainly tobacco products.

“Why would one neighborhood, like the Heights, (need to) hold this many (smoking) vendors?” Myers wondered.

Jersey City’s master plan envisions each resident being within a 15-minute walk to a neighborhood shop to buy groceries, go to the laundry or patronize a restaurant, Myers said, “but do I need to be within 15 minutes of a dispensary?”

Reni Stoll, a resident who has spent a lot of time walking and shopping on Central Avenue, recalled how a recent city-sponsored streetscape improvement project “revitalized hopes for the main community spaces, beautification, and continued vibrancy of the neighborhood.”

“As the main throughway of the Heights,” she said, “Central Avenue reflects who we are as a community, and it is our responsibility to make it the pride of our neighborhood.”

But, instead, she said, “we’ve been seeing a rise of vape shops appearing overnight,” promoting smoking and the potential of spreading harm to middle- and high school-aged youths who may be tempted to sneak smokes and then can become dependent on vaping.

“With so many smoke shops on a three-quarter-mile stretch, Central Avenue is becoming ‘Smoke Central,” Stoll said. “Because middle and high school youths are especially susceptible to the risk of addiction, we need to do a better job in our city to protect our children. The fact that there are many daycare centers and a public school (P.S. 28) nearby means that hundreds of kids of all ages are passing by smoking advertisements daily.”

A longtime Italian deli owner in the 400 block of Central Avenue has had his fill of the smoke and vape shops. “Get rid of them,” he said. “Kids are running in here smelling of the stuff, and my customers complain. I call City Hall. I’m here 42 years, and I’ve never seen it so bad.”

Union City, Jersey City’s northern neighbor, has voted to ban all cannabis operations and earlier this year stopped issuing retail licenses for smoke and vape shops. Other Hudson County municipalities are considering bans and/or caps.

While Stoll says she supports decriminalizing pot and is not against the right of cannabis retail businesses to operate, she believes there’s a better way to regulate them. “We can legitimize them, but not so they take over our main street.”

A better alternative, Stoll said, is to “spread them out throughout the neighborhood — we just don’t want clusters.”

As Jersey City legislators continue to study the city’s cannabis regulations, Stoll and other activists are pressing for adoption of these measures: requiring licenses and caps for vape/smoke shops; capping cannabis dispensaries located in business districts; limiting the number of licenses in each ward; prohibiting the operation of any dispensary located less than 1,000 feet from any other dispensary or from any school, daycare enterprise, playground, park, or house of worship; and implementing “content-neutral” design standards for storefronts and sidewalks that would forbid, for instance, flashing, bright lights, and displays or advertisements of smoking products that are visible from the street or sidewalk.

Councilman Saleh said the council hopes, to “stem the tide of (cigarette smoking and vaping) by teens and limit the proliferation of vape stores as much as we can within our powers.” However, he said enforcing the federal Clean Air Act, which governs air quality (that could theoretically be deleteriously affected by the clustering of smoke shops) “will require state intervention.”

“Stricter controls” to improve the operation of smoke and vape shops can help “if done responsibly” so that shop owners are “allowed to do business,” Saleh said. To that end, he said, there need to be “conversations with the city’s SIDs (Special Improvement Districts) as well.”

“We can’t just wave a magic wand,” he said, to devise a plan of action to deal with the city’s 55 smoke and vape shops spread across 16 square miles.

To deal with the health hazards from tobacco, Saleh said the city should sponsor an education campaign and “make sure” the type of smoke and vape shop signage “isn’t attracting children.”

On the cannabis retail front, Saleh said, “we have much more muscle to enforce” operating rules such as “security at the door, cameras, ID systems in place, just for a customer to step into the place … so if they deviate from being good neighborly businesses, they’ll lose their license.”

So far, he said, it looks like Black and brown “historically disenfranchised” community members — the very individuals the state sought to prioritize for receiving retail cannabis licenses— have been experiencing what Saleh called “an uphill battle” securing licenses.

And even if they succeed in securing the city’s benchmarks leading to a City Council endorsement, “it’s looking like the glide path to physically opening can stretch to two years,” Saleh said.

“We welcome them all,” he said, “because each will be a contributing member of the community” by pledging donations or support to local nonprofits battling such issues as drug or alcohol addiction, homelessness, or unemployment, “not just by adding jobs.”

Asked about a ban on cannabis shops at this point, Saleh said, “We’d be hard pressed” to defend that position given the nearly 70% support received by New Jersey’s 2021 referendum to legalize adult use of recreational marijuana. We can’t ignore our constituents.”

Ron Leir has been a journalist since 1972. That includes a 37-year stint as a reporter, copy reader and assistant editor with The Jersey Journal, followed by a decade as a reporter with The Observer in...