New Jersey cannabis policy and social equity were debated at the NJ League of Municipalities conference in Atlantic City last week.
It’s four conferences at once with New Jersey political, legislative, regulatory, and town leaders and the people who work for them and with them at various events.
NJ League of Municipalities Convention Floor
The League of Municipalities conference in Atlantic City is the perfect place to lobby town leaders to allow cannabis dispensaries in towns. Many New Jersey cannabis advocates reported that many town leaders were very receptive.
The NJ CannaBusiness Association (NJCBA), the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 360 labor union, and Minorities for Medical Marijuana (M4MM) NJ worked the convention floor and open bar cocktail party circuit promoting legalization and towns allowing licensed New Jersey cannabis. They spoke to mayors and local officials on the nature of cannabis. While some still hate it, others find it a new and exciting fun trend.
“We’ve had great interaction and great conversations,” NJCBA President Scott Rudder said. “There’s some businesspeople here too that are interested in investing in the industry. We’ve become this valuable resource. This is our sixth year doing it.”
There are too few New Jersey cannabis advocates charming politicians and handing out packets and pamphlets about the nuts and bolts of allowing legal New Jersey cannabis dispensaries in towns.
Many noted town politicians have basic views of it and have not been lobbied.
New Jersey Cannabis Policy Town Panel
Noted Cannabis Board attorney Ron Mondello led two panels on cannabis in town politics.
The panels were designed for town officials who were iffy about cannabis.
Mondello noted the supremacy of town control, known as home rule, makes implementing cannabis difficult.
New Brunswick Development Director Dan noted they allowed three New Jersey cannabis dispensaries. They initially favored one medical cannabis dispensary opening early in that process.
“Leaving it uncapped, we’d become cannabis stores up and down the row. It would just be problematic and price out the restaurants,” he said.
Dominguez said they also wanted to use old industrial buildings in the city.
A small market lets moneyed serial businesspeople enter the market versus the generations of underground legacy operators who have been selling weed in New Brunswick at Rutgers University for decades and will likely continue to do so.
Mayor Adrian Mapp of Plainfield noted towns that had big majorities in favor 2020 New Jersey adult use cannabis legalization referendum opted out.
“If you have 70 percent of your residents telling you they want cannabis in their mun… 7 members of the governing body shouldn’t be saying no,” he declared.
Mapp noted the job opportunities for those hurt by the War on Drugs were important. He called it a “crime against humanity for the number of families destroyed.”
The Right Amount of NJ Cannabis Dispensaries
Jersey City Council President Joyce Watterman noted the conversation on capping dispensaries in town.
“Everybody is flooding our way,” she noted. “Small businesses and micro businesses, they get priced out.”
Dominguez noted those who were opposed to legal cannabis dispensaries said implementation has not been that bad. While there are people smoking weed on the street, it has not increased with the opening of dispensaries.
Dominguez had issues with the look of dispensaries with weird storefront windows, which are required.
“You can’t really see the nice store inside. I think it’s sort of a backfire thing. The rules are what they are,” he declared.
Dominguez said it detracts from creating a colorful and vibrant downtown corridor.
“We don’t want to see a cannabis store on every corner,” Plainfield Mayor Adrian Mapp said. “We want all of these businesses to be successful.”
They’re allowing 7 New Jersey cannabis dispensaries.
Mondello said more and more towns are opting in, which will make the real estate market more competitive and lower the price ideally.
While New Brunswick did not approve Multi-State Operators (MSOs), Dominguez said they favored those with strong financial backing and a background in cannabis to license.
“We didn’t want them to flame out. It would be a very bad first impression. But I didn’t see how that would happen. We have a lot of restaurants that go out of business,” Dominguez noted.
He explained they allowed more non-dispensary businesses like a few towns.
Mapp wanted socially responsible businesses that hired those harmed by the War on Drugs.
Dominguez noted Mondello was hired to review their cannabis laws and set up a New Brunswick Cannabis Review Board.
“We’ll have more licenses probably,” he added.
New Jersey Town Cannabis Legal Issues
Noted cannabis attorney Joshua Bauchner has been the lead on cannabis lawsuits on the state and town levels. He said a lack of transparency and integrity drives it.
“We’ve had situations where four candidates apply to get the resolution of support where the last two don’t get the hearing. They use different criteria. The applicant is next door to a church, and they get a license, and our client doesn’t get it,” he explained.
Thus, Bauchner sued to stop the process.
“I’ve got cases that are backed up 18 months,” he noted.
Bauchner said people investing their retirement account money were denied permission arbitrarily.
“Pissed people sue,” he declared.
Along with COVID, Bauchner’s lawsuit was the reason the 2019-2021 New Jersey medical cannabis license round lasted for 29 months.
“Everyone should get a hearing. Score everyone consistently. We’ve had instances where one or two people use a checklist. But others don’t. That’s arbitrary, and that’s unlawful,” he said. “Apply them (criteria) consistently.”
A Perth Amboy official whose town opted out was interested in the mechanics of receiving cannabis tax revenue.
Dominguez said the retailers are giving them the money directly every month.
Cannabis Tax Revenue & Social Equity Debated
Another panel was held on using New Jersey cannabis revenue to address social equity.
“It was critical to include the social equity excise fee,” NJ Cannabis Regulatory Commissioner (NJ-CRC) Charles Barker explained. “The failed drug war really impacted certain communities detrimentally.”
State Senator-Elect Angela McKnight (D-Hudson-31) wants a community learning program to help schools in neighborhoods hurt by the War on Drugs. She is pushing the bill A 3320 to do so.
McKnight is currently an Assemblywoman. She has been supportive of cannabis legalization for some time.
“The final says will not just come from the Governor and the legislature. It’s our duty to listen to you,” McKnight said.
They’ve held hearings on where the money should go.
Noted New Jersey cannabis attorney Jessica F. Gonzalez is building out the NJ Cannabis Training Academy (CTA) with some of the cannabis tax revenue. It will educate people on getting into the industry. The program will provide technical assistance.
“I’ve seen the obstacles, the challenges. They weren’t educated enough in the process on what it takes to succeed. It’s soul-crushing,” Gonzalez declared.
People were dazzled by headlines, she said.
“They don’t understand the rules of the game they’re trying to play,” Gonzalez explained. “We have ever-changing regulations. We have new bills. There’s so much misinformation.”
She wants to prioritize education. So Gonzalez is working to create an underground legacy to legal program. However, the CTA is delayed from opening until next spring.
“I appreciate everybody’s patience,” she said.
Gonzalez argued that rushed social equity programs have failed to produce results in the older state-legal cannabis markets.
She encouraged people to get involved in advocacy.
“Identify the problems and relay it to the regulators and relay it to the legislators,” Gonzalez declared.
Distributing Cannabis Social Equity Excise Fee Revenue
“A lot of brothers and sisters of mine are incarcerated,” Life Worth Living nonprofit director John W. Fuqua said. “We’re wondering where our moms and dads are.”
He wanted to fund after-school and weekend programs to deter kids from being on the streets.
“We can’t move forward appropriately without addressing the harms and injustices of the past,” Barker said. “The communities most harmed… will be allowed to benefit from cannabis.”
Gonzalez said social equity was an afterthought in many states where legalization occurred. She said Oregon used cannabis tax revenue to fund police. Gonzalez noted cannabis sponsor NJ Senate President Nick Scutari’s (D-Union) bill initially had no social equity and would have funded police.
She noted there will be a lot of cannabis industry tax revenue soon.
“I’m just worried about how it’s gonna be used,” Gonzalez said to applause.
Barker said states with cannabis markets for almost ten years have never given out any grants to help struggling cannabis companies.
“We’re the only state in the nation that’s providing grants,” Barker declared.
Establishing A Just NJ Cannabis Industry and Stopping Shady Deals
Lack of access to capital leaves many New Jersey cannabis license applicants in a bad position to negotiate with investors. Gonzalez credited the NJ-CRC with creating protective measures.
“People are gonna get a piece of the pie one way or another,” she noted.
There are a range of financial agreements.
“They are wild!” Gonzalez exclaimed.
“I would put out a clarion call to financial institutions. We’re just hopeful that more financial institutions would answer the call,” Barker declared.
He noted the NJ-CRC Director of Government Affairs, Jesus Alcazar, oversees working with towns on New Jersey cannabis policy.
“How do we protect the applicants from unsavory business practices? We have certain ownership restrictions,” Gonzalez explained.
She noted there are many shady operators in the New Jersey cannabis industry.
“They actually put out an ad on Indeed for someone who qualifies as social equity. Then they kick you out. A lot of times, they’re promised things. As a lawyer, if it’s not on paper, it doesn’t exist,” Gonzalez explained.
The most they can give is 49 percent.
“It has helped as a lawyer in negotiations,” Gonzalez said. “We need to make sure we’re protected. Folks will try every which way to get around it.”
The 51 percent owner is mandated to receive 51 percent of revenue versus a token amount.
Encouraging Towns to Like Legal Weed
Councilwoman Quantavia Hilbert from the City of Orange wanted to opt in. But she needed help educating people after 70 percent in town voted for it. But the council voted against it.
“Your town can opt-in at any time. It’s just up to your leadership. I would encourage you to connect to Jesus Alcazar,” Barker said.
Towns had to adopt ordinances simultaneously as the CRC regulations were in development, which made many wary.
“The municipalities are king and queen makers of this industry!” Gonzalez declared.
NJ-CRC Chair Dianna Houenou was in the audience. She briefly attended the League of Municipalities conference before hearing back versus enjoying the cocktail party circuit around town.