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New Jersey voters have approved a ballot question that amends the state constitution to make marijuana legal, the result of a years-long effort by activists, lawmakers and business people.
But the vote is also just the beginning: Before people can begin purchasing and using marijuana, state lawmakers must still pass a bill that will detail the rules and regulations surrounding the legal weed industry. Dispensaries must go through a rigorous licensing process, and new growers will have to come to add to the state’s supply.
That could all take months, if not more than a year, before Tuesday’s vote becomes a reality in the Garden State. In Massachusetts, the first dispensary opened two years after voters passed a 2016 referendum to legalize marijuana. In Maine, it took four years.
However, Sen. Nick Scutari, D-Union, has said he wants to move swiftly to pass legislation modeled off a former legal marijuana bill he sponsored, and plans to introduce the bill as soon as Thursday.
New Jersey set an example for other states by focusing on racial and social justice as reasons to end marijuana prohibition and building provisions like licenses for minorities and women into legislation. Even though the bills failed and led lawmakers to push the issue to voters in a referendum, they still set the groundwork for the marijuana industry to come.
“The past few years that got us to legalization are just as important as the next few are — and especially the next couple of weeks,” said Scott Rudder, president of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association.
And Rudder said he thinks the existing legislation Scutari sponsored is a “great place to start” with some tweaks to adjust a marijuana industry proposed in 2018 to the realities of 2020.
Already, there are disputes about its details, according to two sources with knowledge of the negotiations. They are discussing an excise tax on growers; limiting number of licenses issued; adding more detail on how social justice and diversity goals would be met; allowing municipalities to decide how the 2% tax rate ought to be spent; defining how wholesaler cannabis growers should play in the market.
The current process to license medical marijuana dispensaries requires applicants to spend large amounts of money to compete for a very limited number of licenses. That has led large marijuana companies with holdings in several states to come into New Jersey and make millions.
Rudder said he hopes the bill will make changes to that process that prioritize the local business community. But beyond legislation, the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, which will oversee the industry, must also take a different approach to divvying up licenses.
“One of the areas we want to focus on…is how we can ensure as many New Jersey-based entrepreneurs as possible can get in to the cannabis industry with the lowest cost barriers,” he said.
The commission presents another possible delay. It needs five members appointed by Gov. Phil Murphy, Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin. Only Sweeney has made his pick so far.
Regardless of how the new licensing process plays out, the first companies to sell to the public will likely be the state’s 12 currently licensed medical marijuana dispensaries. And Scutari said last week he hoped they had already increased their cultivation capacity to prepare for legalization and could start selling to the public almost immediately after enabling legislation passes.
Others quickly dismissed the idea. Jeff Brown, the assistant commissioner in the state Department of Health who oversees the medical marijuana program, said the existing dispensaries must provide marijuana to the state’s 95,000 patients, and that they are not ready for an influx of 1 million estimated customers. (Patients have long complained about product shortages and long lines at the dispensaries.)
“I could say unequivocally that opening up sales even a few months after the election would be a disaster and would really hurt access for patients who need this as medicine,” Brown told NJ Cannabis Insider last week. “My number one priority is to ensure that the patients have access — that’s going to be our priority first and foremost.”
Three of those dispensaries, which received licenses in late 2018, have yet to open their doors to patients at all.
And the dispensaries, which will benefit from legalization, have been quick to emphasize patient need rather than an interest in selling to the public in the coming weeks.
“As New Jersey’s 12 existing Alternative Treatment Centers, we look forward to participating in the state’s adult use market and making cannabis available in a legal way to anybody over 21 who wants or needs it,” a spokesperson from the New Jersey Cannabis Trade Association, which represents the medical marijuana industry, said. “At the same time, our goal is to protect New Jersey’s medical cannabis program and ensure that the 92,000 existing patients maintain adequate and affordable access to the medicine that they have come to rely on every day.”
Even if additional cultivation begins immediately, it takes three to four months for plants to go from seed to harvest. Dispensaries would have to hire additional staff to meet the demand, too.
Advocates are hopeful that arrests for marijuana possession will come to an end much sooner, although that will not happen immediately. Lawmakers must pass a bill that decriminalizes possession of marijuana, or Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration will have to issue a directive for police to stop arrests.
Senators introduced a bill to decriminalize possession of marijuana, but it has sat in the Senate Judiciary committee since June. Scutari had said he did not want lawmakers to move on it until after legalization had passed.
NJ CAN 2020, the largest coalition in the state to unite in favor of legalization, made racial justice and criminal justice reform the key part of its campaign platform. Lawmakers, the coalition says, should keep that in mind when they craft new legislation.
Amol Sinha, executive director of the ACLU-NJ, said unless the Legislature acts quickly in the coming days, arrests will likely continue. If those delays persist, Sinha said Gov. Murphy’s administration should consider directives to police to stop certain marijuana arrests.
The ACLU-NJ, he said, will continue to push for racial justice provisions in the legislation, including diversity within the licenses and tax revenue from marijuana sales going to communities harmed by the drug war.
“The Legislature has its marching orders,” Sinha said. “It would be a gross injustice for the state to vote yes today, and then continue to arrest tomorrow. There’s the potential for a lot of confusion.”
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