Cannabis in NJ

Protesters rally in support of the legalization of marijuana in front of the White House in Washington D.C., in 2016. (Shutterstock.com)

Now legal for recreational use, it’s about to make a big impact in the state

By Donald Gilpin

A coronavirus we hadn’t even heard of fourteen months ago and a president who, at least for now, has moved on dominated the headlines and our consciousness over the past year, but the big story of the year ahead might be a very different issue that promises to provoke some of our deepest concerns and beliefs: cannabis, bringing its far-reaching impact and billion-dollar industry to New Jersey.

With more than two-thirds of New Jersey voters supporting the November 3, 2020 ballot issue to legalize recreational use of cannabis and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy on February 22 signing into law the legislation that permits and regulates marijuana use, the state has embarked on the numerous complex steps to create a cannabis industry.

Almost every faction of the state’s population is involved in one way or another, and thousands are eager to weigh in on the determination of who, when, and how the state proceeds in growing, processing, testing, marketing, regulating, selling, and educating the public. 

At stake as New Jersey anticipates the effects of legalization are the future of a potentially huge economic juggernaut for growers, distributors and the state, the development and growth of minority businesses, and nothing less than social justice itself for all.

“This legislation will establish an industry that brings equity and economic opportunity to our communities, while establishing minimum standards for safe products and allowing law enforcement to focus their resources on real public safety matters,” said Murphy in signing the bills. “Today we’re taking a monumental step forward to reduce racial disparities in our criminal justice system, while building a promising new industry and standing on the right side of history. I’d like to thank the legislature, advocates, faith leaders, and community leaders for their dedicated work and partnership on this critical issue.”

Disparities in law enforcement over the years have seen Black New Jersey residents more than three times as likely as white residents to be charged with marijuana possession, despite similar rates of usage.  The recently signed bills, however, decriminalize the use or possession of up to six ounces of marijuana. Marijuana for medical purposes has been legal in the state since 2010, but patients are not allowed to grow their own cannabis.

Recently approved legislation also includes a reduction in penalties for underage use or possession, with written warnings and referrals to community services like mentorships and counseling rather  than harsh fines or criminal punishments.

Despite widespread voter support and the initial hurdles that have been cleared, the challenges ahead are formidable in creating this $1 billion industry that is expected to generate about $126 million a year in revenue for the state.  Setting up dispensaries and other cannabis establishments may take another year, and it may be another year after that before significant tax revenues are apparent.

One goal of the new state cannabis industry is to take over the current illegal trafficking in marijuana and to channel tax revenues to support impact zones, minority communities like Atlantic City, Camden, East Orange, Irvington, Newark, Paterson, Trenton, and other areas that have been most damaged by unfair treatment from law enforcement and others in the war on drugs.

At the time of the bill signing American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (a founding member of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform) Executive Director Amol Sinha commented, “With Governor Murphy’s signature, the decades-long practice of racist marijuana enforcement will begin to recede, in a shift that emphasizes the urgency of building the most equitable framework possible for cannabis legalization. With this historic reform, New Jersey also shifts our approach to youth possession and use by moving away from the punitive status quo to a framework that values public health, harm reduction, and the well-being of young people.”

He continued, “Our state’s cannabis laws can set a new standard for what justice can look like, with the removal of criminal penalties for possession and an unprecedented portion of tax revenue dedicated to addressing the harms wrought by the drug war. Signing these laws puts in motion the next phase of this effort: to work relentlessly to transform the principles of legalization into greater racial and social justice in New Jersey. This is a new beginning —and the culmination of years of advocacy and we must keep in mind that it is only the start.”

Overseeing the transition and making sure that social justice remains in focus is the governor-appointed New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC), which has been designated the decision-making body for the new industry.

Among other provisions, the legalization bill would include a 6.625 percent sales tax plus 2 percent maximum municipal tax, with 70 percent of the revenues from those taxes dedicated to minority communities. It would also require that at least 25 percent of cannabis licenses go to residents living in designated impact zones and that priority for licenses be given to businesses that hire residents of these areas.

To qualify as an impact zone an area must rank in the top 15 percent in the state in unemployment, in the top 40 percent in recent small amount marijuana possession arrests, and have a high total crime index ranking.  Also in the bill are provisions to support micro business loans, conditional licenses, and business development resources for minority groups, women, and disabled veterans.

In the coming months and years, the impact of this new industry will be felt by all New Jerseyans, whether they voted for legalization or not.  Several of the public figures who have been working most assiduously to make sure that the state gets it right in launching this new era shared their thoughts on the legalization of recreational marijuana in New Jersey and what lies ahead for the industry and the state’s residents.

New Jersey Assemblyman

Andrew Zwicker

Andrew Zwicker, who currently represents the 16th District in the New Jersey General Assembly and is running for a position in the state Senate, has been a strong proponent for cannabis legalization on the grounds of social equity.  He discussed the passage of the legalization bill and its implications for the future. 

“In November the people of New Jersey spoke strongly in favor of legalization of adult-use cannabis,” he said.  “It took longer than expected to get the legislation correct, but we did, and the governor signed it. It’s what the voters of New Jersey asked us to do.”

Pointing out important challenges ahead for the CRC and for Princeton and other New Jersey municipalities, Zwicker mentioned business, safety, and social justice concerns.  “We want to ensure that New Jersey entrepreneurs have the ability to participate if they so choose,” he said. “The other piece of this is the fact that for way too long we’ve had people being arrested for possession of cannabis and jailed, and this is disproportionately Black and Brown communities, an unfair burden on those communities.”

Zwicker pointed out that Princeton and the other towns in central New Jersey that he represents face a number of difficult decisions in the next six  months.  “They have to decide if this is something they want to participate in or do they want to wait and see. In many ways this is not the same as alcohol, but it certainly is similar. It has its advantages and disadvantages.”

He continued, “None of this mandates that a community must have a dispensary or a lounge. The legislation allows for it, but it’s very much up to the municipalities whether or not they’d like to have an establishment like that in their town. It’s not up to me. It’s up to the people. We have bars in almost every town in New Jersey, but this is a brand new type of store. Some towns may be comfortable with that, and some may not. That is completely up to the town. In Princeton, it will be up to the Council based on the will of the people.” 

Zwicker emphasized that he was talking only about adult use. “We would never tolerate alcohol use by minors, and we’re not going to tolerate it for cannabis,” he said. “This is a really important time in New Jersey, because the war on drugs has devastated communities in tremendously unfair ways. We now have the ability to start to change that. To be sure that revenue generated goes back into these communities is critically important.”

Princeton Council members

Leticia Fraga

Princeton Council President Leticia Fraga and Council member and leader of the newly formed Princeton Cannabis Task Force (CTF) Eve Niedergang discussed the work ahead in Princeton with the six-month time clock ticking and a final decision due by August on whether Princeton will opt out on participation in six different segments of the cannabis market: cultivation, manufacturing, wholesaling, distribution, retailing, and delivery.

“There are six different licenses available in the marijuana industry, and we have to decide whether saying ’yes’ to any one or more of those licenses is in the best interests of the community as a whole,” said Niedergang.

If municipalities don’t take action in the six months from when the governor signed the legislation in February, Princeton will be open to cannabis business under current zoning regulations for individuals with the appropriate licenses. Princeton Council, with advice from the CTF, will consider whether Princeton should just opt out on all possible licenses at this point in order to gain time to decide without pressure.

“Once you opt out, you can opt in whenever you want,” said Niedergang. “But if you choose not to opt out in the six months, then you are open for business for at least five years. It’s a very quick timeframe for us to master a lot of information. To give us time to make the best decision for the community, it might make sense to say we’re going to do this on our own schedule, not on the state’s.”

Fraga pointed out the need for time to draft the ordinance, introduce it, and provide the opportunity for public comment.

Eve Niedergang

Commenting on the work of Princeton’s CTF, Niedergang explained, “The future of cannabis in Princeton is unwritten.  I want to make sure that this task force is focused on the issues that are ahead of us, not the issues that are behind us. The issue of whether we should have legal cannabis, that’s already decided. Another issue is whether it should be available in town.  My understanding of the legislation is that there will be delivery services everywhere, and even if we wanted to we could not keep it out.”

She continued, “You’ll be able to sit at your computer, go on a website, and say, ‘I want this or I want that.’ A battle I think some people are fighting about is whether we should have it in our community. That’s not a battle we need to focus on.”

Two additional focal points for the CTF will be education and enforcement.  “We want to make sure that all the populations —under 21, our adult-use population, and our seniors — get the education they need,” said Niedergang. “We want this to be absolutely data- and fact-driven. I understand that cannabis is a very bad thing for a young developing mind. If you’re 37 or if you’re 20 it’s different. We need to make sure the education is tailored.”

More than 30 people have applied to join the CTF, and the task force will include a lawyer and representatives from Corner House, the school district, the police department, the business community, and the Senior Resource Center.  CTF meetings will be open to the public. Fraga mentioned the need for well-rounded input and discussion and she noted the diversity of applicants, “not just racial diversity, but background, including neurologists, medical professionals, and researchers. We’re very fortunate in Princeton that we have the brain power. It’s not just the mayor and Council making decisions.”

Niedergang also emphasized the priority of equity in implementing and enforcing cannabis policies in Princeton.  “How do we make sure that Princeton’s commitment to social and racial justice is very clearly stated?” she said. “We are not allowed to tell the police or prosecutors what to do, but to the extent to which we can adopt a community attitude, as we have in other areas such as not supporting ICE raids, we can show our moral colors.”

Highlighting the urgency of the current situation Fraga added, “We have to get out ahead of this and work through these issues . We have to gather the expertise we need and make decisions. The whole point of the task force is to make the best possible recommendations to the mayor and Council.”

Acknowledging the possibility that cannabis could give Princeton a significant economic boost, Niedergang said she remains undecided as to whether the CTF’s deliberations will discover more pros or cons in the prospect of a marijuana dispensary in town. “I’m agnostic,” she said. “If it’s going to be for the benefit of the community overall and we can do it in the way we want, emphasizing social and racial justice and get someone from within the community to own and operate, then I would definitely be open to it.”

Fraga, the mother of teen-aged children, noted the community’s concerns about keeping alcohol out of minors’ reach, and she emphasized the importance of enforcing restrictions and laws on cannabis.

“There’s a tightrope we need to walk,” said Niedergang. “We need to keep the process moving and make sure we review all the pertinent information, bring in the community input, and act in deliberate and careful haste. We don’t want to rush into this without thinking it through, but at the same time we don’t want to make the decision two years down the road and lose out on some of the economic benefits.”

Commercial marijuana grow operation. (Shutterstock.com)

President, New Jersey Cannabis Chamber of Commerce

Ed DeVeaux

Ed DeVeaux, an expert in government relations and business development at Burton Trent public relations firm in Trenton and president of the New Jersey Cannabusiness Association (known as the cannabis chamber of commerce), has been in the forefront of work to form a responsible and sustainable cannabis industry in the state. 

DeVeaux emphasized the need to avoid the mistakes and injustices of the past and take advantage of the social and economic opportunities that the cannabis industry can provide. “What New Jersey stands to gain now is the opportunity to create an industry —which is so rare,” he said. How many times in your lifetime do you get to create an industry, and now we’re creating an industry.  We are excited to be able to advocate for not only great social and economic policies, but a commercial platform as well.”

He explained that people often asked him, as a policy adviser, how he got into the cannabis industry. “My answer was ‘because I want it done right,’” he said.  “I want it done right because I am a parent. I want it done right because I am active in my community. I want it done right. That’s why I’m involved.”

DeVeaux pointed out that getting it right requires that the CRC adopt an effective regulatory framework with appropriate rules and laws for the industry. “Getting it right is making sure that the Cannabusiness Association is involved and advocating for sound policy for all of these businesses involved from cultivation to delivery and making sure that they have the regulatory framework so they can be sustainable and profitable.” 

DeVeaux went on to emphasize the importance of education, so that all New Jersey communities are well informed —“everyone, from law enforcement to educators to community-based organizations and the whole education community.”

“People need to understand first the history, how we got here, and then the potential that exists and making sure that we’re all working toward ensuring that the industry is a benefit to all our communities,” he said.

As president of what he cited as the largest and most diverse trade organization in the state, DeVeaux noted his responsibility to represent all the stakeholders in the industry from current medical marijuana license holders to everyone who would like to get involved: accountants, attorneys, realtors, insurance companies, transportation and janitorial services and others.  Highlighting the priorities of fairness and free-market opportunities for everyone, he added, “I represent them all so I have to make sure that the industry at large addresses their concerns.”

Founder and CEO, Pure Genesis

Faye Coleman

In 2018, Faye Coleman, with experience in engineering and the corporate world,  transitioned from a career in the food industry at Campbell Soup into the medical marijuana business in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. She founded Pure Genesis, a minority women’s business enterprise.

“Our mission is threefold: education, access and advocacy, pure and simple,” she said.  “Our strategy is simple. We are looking to cultivate, process, and dispense cannabis in all forms.”  Pure Genesis is currently applying for a license to branch out into recreational marijuana.

Coleman emphasized her company’s focus on “community-first partnering,” looking to offer 30 percent of jobs to those recently released from prison due to possession, to offer a living wage as a base line to provide leadership skills training, and to deliver one percent profit-sharing for the communities where they are based.

Pure Genesis, Coleman described, is a multi-faceted business, including operations in hemp cultivation, a data analytic study on pain management with Rowan University, as a consultant in business and education,  a cannabis education workshop for at-risk youth called “Now You Know,” and a new line of CBD beverages called Genesis with a national rollout currently underway.

Coleman described her entry into the cannabis industry. “I was excited to enter the space, but when I got into it in 2018, it was eye-opening to say the least.”

Both Coleman and her mother are cancer survivors, and Coleman was looking for alternative health care.  “She had a very challenging recovery from cancer,” Coleman said. “Traditional medicine darn near killed her.”

Coleman and her team of eight at Pure Genesis are what she described as “an American-made cannabis-ready-now business.  We have the team, the land, the municipality approval, and the capital required to get a license, and more important to successfully operate a cannabis business beginning now.”

She discussed the issue of equity and access to opportunity. “Social equity lowers the barriers and provides a path for those cannabis-ready or soon-to-be-ready businesses. Equity is really about access. Look at investment in diversity and having the right people at the table.  Equity brings that access and leads to agency in the cannabis industry for Black communities and all people of color.”

Licensing is one issue Coleman hopes to see expedited by the CRC.  “We need to eliminate the disqualification-first protocol of the application process,” she said.  “We’ve seen hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on an application, only to be disqualified for a lack of signature. We have to eliminate the need to win a license. Like any other industry, if you meet the requirements, you should be granted a license.”

Noting the lessons to be learned from Colorado, Oklahoma and other states that have legalized marijuana, Coleman emphasized, “We have to be more inclusive to achieve equity.”  She also pointed out the need to overcome significant financial barriers on the path to an equitable cannabis business environment.

Coleman appreciates the progress already made on many fronts, and she is optimistic about New Jersey’s future with cannabis. “I think cannabis provides an industry that benefits our environment, our economy, and our people,” she said. “New Jersey can pursue social equity through cannabis. We need to make sure that the benefits are for all people. And the work continues.”

Snoop Dogg and David Nathan with Declaration of Principles.

Founder and President, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation

David Nathan, Princeton psychiatrist and founder and president of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, discussed some of the medical and legal issues of cannabis in New Jersey.

“As a physician I certainly want to see a reduction in non-medical underage  use, because my reading of the literature is that cannabis can indeed affect brain development,” he said. “Even though I’m an advocate of legalization for adult use, I’m equally adamant that we need to do what we can to keep kids from starting cannabis at a time when their brains are most vulnerable and the risk of problematic use is much higher.”

Nathan was pleased that the most recent legislation had reduced fines for possession by 18- to 20-year-olds from $250 to $50, but he emphasized that the criminal justice system is the wrong tool to use to prevent underage use.

“If we have to impose punishment on young people for possession — and I question the wisdom of doing so — then we should require of them their time and not their money,” he said, advising against “the old fashioned scare tactics about reefer madness and trying to convince kids that it’s a gateway drug.” He suggested instead “a required course on coping skills, or a course on managing stress or stress reduction. That would do a lot more for reducing underage use than a fine or mandated treatment class.”

Describing fines for underage possession as “akin to imposing a regressive tax on people of lower income,” Nathan added, “At the same time what’s most important is that we stop arresting Brown and Black people for the use of a drug that New Jerseyans have decided should be legal for all adults.”

Nathan explained, “For adults the odds of developing dependence on cannabis are something like 9 percent, whereas 16 percent of underage users below the age of 16 will develop cannabis dependence, so we certainly want young adults to wait as long as possible to start their use of it, but at the same time I don’t want to see an 18-year-old in Newark to have to face fines for cannabis possession that he or she may not be able to pay.”

Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, according to Nathan, who founded the international organization in 2015, is “a group of mainstream responsible physicians who believe that cannabis prohibition was misguided from the outset and creates much more harm to society than the use of cannabis itself and understand that public health is best served by changes to the law that help reduce structural racism.” 

Nathan continued, “We’re doctors for cannabis regulation for a reason. We see that regulation of cannabis is a much better approach than even a decriminalized system where the penalty for possession is reduced but the drug remains technically illegal. If we’re going to accept that tens of millions of Americans already use cannabis, then it behooves the medical community to support regulation so that we can ensure government oversight, testing, proper labeling, and public education about the potential health effects of cannabis.”

Nathan is currently working on a project to optimize labeling on all cannabis products.

Community Organizer

John Bailey

John Bailey, community organizer and founder of the Black Cannabis Equity Initiative (BCEI) and the Capital City Area Black Caucus, has been arranging and leading monthly forums since December, bringing together major stakeholders and players in the cannabis industry. Bailey, who moderates the virtual Zoom gatherings of leaders from government, business, community affairs, and social equity, emphasized that his goal is “to broaden the cannabis dialogue in New Jersey by including more voices in this legalization discussion.”

Noting the confusion on many issues related to cannabis legalization, Bailey said that the ongoing Zoom conversations are “a place and an opportunity to hold authentic cannabis legalization discussions and to look at the social equity impact on the state and on New Jersey residents in their local communities.”

BCEI, he said, “is advocating for opportunity and access for Black businesses and BCEI has a pathway and plans for doing that.” He highlighted three initial topics as the focus of the social equity discussion: recognition of past abuses and failures; recognition of the need for equity capacity building to achieve economic and social goals; and recognition of the need for equity sustainability, including opportunity and accountability.

As he continues to lead many of the stakeholders in bringing the social equity issue to the forefront, Bailey, who grew up in Princeton and now lives in Colorado, emphasized, “There are many more questions than answers.”