This article was published in NJSpotlight, Saturday, November 20, 2021https://www.njspotlightnews.org/2021/11/
It has been over a year since New Jerseyans voted to amend the constitution to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.
But for many prospective cannabis retailers, their first sales are still a ways away with only the next phase of the process, setting up who and how they can sell marijuana, scheduled to begin in December.
During a recent public meeting, the Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC) announced that they will begin accepting applications for cultivator and manufacturer cannabis licenses as early as Dec. 15. They plan to start accepting applications for retailer licenses by March 15.
The initial law passed as a ballot question in the 2020 election cycle and authorized the expansion of the state’s current medicinal cannabis program. It also opened the door for the expungement of about 360,000 cases of marijuana-related offenses. Those cases were all considered low level and involved the cancellation of fines and penalties for folks caught possessing and selling small amounts of marijuana.
As a prime sponsor of the bill, Assemblyman Jamel Holley advocated for the social justice policies that shape much of the law. Holley said the goal is to give marginalized individuals who have been wrongly criminalized by past regulations not only a second chance at life, but also the opportunity to open their own businesses.
“A minimum of 20% of licenses will go to minorities, women and disabled veterans,” he said, continuing, “70% of sales tax will go back to communities in need in order to repair the harm caused by the so-called war on drugs.”
Holley also noted efforts to remove the stigma associated with minor drug offenses. “If you have been convicted of a marijuana charge in the past, you are still eligible to apply for a cannabis business license,” he said.
However, Holley agreed that the legalization process has taken quite a long time. “The CRC are doing their due diligence, but the green light is long overdue,” he said.
Edmund DeVeaux, president of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, argued that the last several months have been pivotal to the establishment of the recreational market. Now that there is a more substantial timeline, DeVeaux’s organization is concerned with ensuring that prospective applicants have the knowledge, skills and abilities to succeed. When it comes to how minorities and other marginalized groups will make their way in the cannabis industry, DeVeaux is cautiously optimistic.
“I say that because many people that have expressed an interest in being an applicant will be establishing businesses for the first time,” he said.
For many of those who were initially denied a license or struggled during the medicinal application process, DeVeaux reinforced the importance of reapplying.
“The beauty of New Jersey’s cannabis market is that there is a second chance,” DeVeaux said. “We absolutely encourage, especially minority applicants, to come back and take part in the new and improved licensing process.”
In October, the NJCRC approved 14 of the 2,019 medical cannabis business applications that had been previously held up due to a court-ordered stay of the review process. These businesses could eventually grow and sell recreational marijuana to the public, but first they must have enough supply to meet medicinal and recreational needs, pay fees to the state and sell in the medical market for at least one year.
According to NJCRC Chairwoman Dianna Houenou, this could pose an issue for medicinal businesses looking to transition to the adult-use market.
“The current alternative treatment centers have not kept pace with patient need,” she said. “We constantly hear from patients that prices are too high and that there are too few dispensaries with too few product options. The situation has not changed with the legalization of recreational cannabis.”
As of now, 12 alternative treatment centers and satellite locations across New Jersey currently serve 118,882 medicinal cannabis patients. If they are unable to adequately serve these patients, they will be unable to qualify for recreational distribution.
Shaya Brodchandel, CEO of Harmony Dispensary and president of the New Jersey Cannabis Trade Association, said that medical operators are doing everything they can to expand and facilitate the product. He noted that while all the excitement is on the future of the adult-use market, New Jersey cannot allow medical marijuana to be dwarfed by the new industry.
“It is upon us to ensure that medical patients have access and that we continue to grow the medical marijuana industry as we expand into more recreational cannabis businesses,” Brodchandel said.
In addition to CRC regulations, the state’s municipalities also have a say in the fate of recreational marijuana. According to the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, local governments had Aug. 21, to act to either prohibit or limit the number of cannabis establishments, distributors or delivery services in their area. Brodchandel said the support of these local ordinances is crucial to the establishment and growth of the cannabis industry in New Jersey.
“Every town and municipality have their own ordinances, and we need to get their certification and approval,” he said.
Without local support, the expansion of the market could be severely stunted.
The most pressing question of all is just how many licenses will be awarded when applications finally open next month. In the meantime, all eyes are on the NJCRC.
“We are setting the model for all neighboring states who will follow,” Brodchandel said.
The next public meeting of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission is scheduled for Dec. 6.