Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC) Chair Diana Houenou is eager to begin establishing cannabis regulations.
“I’m thrilled that the Commission is getting up and running and doing the work. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done,” Houenou said.
“I don’t expect adult-use cannabis sales to occur this calendar year. Because as the Commission begins the regulatory process, that alone could take several months,” she said. Experts were initially speculating that sales could begin this year.
Houenou became Cannabis Regulatory Commission Chair after serving on Governor Phil Murphy’s staff. She was advising on cannabis policy and working on the implementation of legislation. Prior, she worked for the ACLU advocating for cannabis reform beginning. In 2014 she began leading the New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform (where I began representing the Latino Action Network after she left, full disclosure).
“This is really a part of broader criminal justice reform,” she said.
It was made clear she believes there is a need to “dismantle the systemic barriers that have been put up.”
Houenou noted she spent three years driving around New Jersey to convince people why they should care about the end of legalization as a civil rights issue.
“It certainly was a long, hard-fought battle. Seeing the results of the November election in which the New Jersey voters voted by a 2:1 margin to change the way we’ve been doing things really was gratifying,” Houenou said.
“Nationwide support for adult-use cannabis legalization has really exploded. It’s because people are realizing and accepting the fact that the War on Drugs was garbage. People were fed a lie for decades,” she added.
Adult-use Cannabis Regulations Implementation
People expect a lot of the CRC regarding cannabis regulations since the devil is in the details.
Despite the epic battles fought over New Jersey adult-use cannabis legalization, “This is where the real work begins,” Houenou said.
Once the CRC is launched, there will be more public announcements of major developments. Cannabis regulations have to be written, and a public comment period after they’re announced. Afterward, the next license round will begin.
Houenou noted there will be hearings during which the public will be invited to comment. They will take place before cannabis regulations stemming from the legislation are implemented.
“I’m looking forward to engaging with the public and stakeholders. So folks understand what the expectations are,” she said.
However, she noted it might take some time for CRC to be announcing significant developments.
“We want to ensure public comment and to respond to public comment,” she said. “It will take a while, but it is important for us to it well and do it right.”
Creating a Just Industry
Many fear that large Multi-State Operators (MSOs) indifferent to every issue besides maximizing profit will dominate the industry and provide mediocre cannabis at the expense of the underground entrepreneurs, advocates, and entrepreneurs, and professionals eager to get into the New Jersey adult-use cannabis industry.
“There are a number of ways we can avoid having an industry just created for and run by out-of-state corporations,” Houenou said. “The first is making room for small business operators, and that’s what the legislation that was enacted did. It established micro-businesses that are small operations.”
“We should have a diverse marketplace with a wide range of sizes among our cannabis businesses,” she said.
“We should be proactive and intentional in our efforts to promote participation,” she said. Houenou added that People of Color and underrepresented communities should be encouraged to getting the market.
“There should be meaningful opportunities to do that,” she said.
However, there are no guarantees. Houenou admitted private sector forces are beyond the Commission’s control. For example, it is difficult for entrepreneurs to raise the money needed for plant-touching businesses.
“We should as a collective be doing equity work that offers opportunities for all our communities and a regulated market,” Houenou said.
Legacy to Legal
Regarding underground entrepreneurs receiving licenses, Houenou said, “I think it is possible.”
“We’re not setting up arbitrary barriers and barring people from being eligible. Just because they have a prior conviction,” she added.
She made a point to say she wants to ensure they are selling quality cannabis.
“Because right now, with unregulated cannabis, we really don’t know what’s in it,” Houenou said.
Some people fear that some street cannabis could have been sprayed with pesticides and other chemicals.
She did note that while she was the ACLU’s lobbyist, they advocated for homegrow. Houenou acknowledged it’s a hotly debated issue.
“I think it has unique challenges that need to be thought through thoroughly. If the state is to advance a law that would permit some form of homegrow,” Houenou said.
On the 21-month delay since the signing of the Jake Honig Act in July 2019, which provided for the Cannabis Regulatory Commission and its launch, she said, “I can’t comment on the delay.”
“Building the infrastructure isn’t easy. The pandemic slowed down a lot of government operations and put a lot of high priorities on the back burner, so we could respond to the public health crisis,” Houenou said.
“I’m glad we’re here and looking forward to all the great work the Commission is going go to do.”