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NJ Cannabis Law Bill OKing Some Officials to Rep Clients Passes Committees

Legislative committees passed a New Jersey cannabis law bill that would allow certain public officials to work in the space last minute during the lame-duck session of the legislature.

Since there were elections last November, the elected legislators will take office next Tuesday.

Politico NJ first reported it.

New Jersey Cannabis Law Issues

New Jersey Senate President and legal market champion Nick Scutari (D-Union) introduced S 4268 “Permits certain special State officers to represent cannabis businesses, applicants to operate cannabis businesses, and certain other entities associated with cannabis business activities.”

According to this bill’s statement, it “would permit special State officers or employees who do not have responsibility for matters affecting cannabis or casino business activities to represent, appear for, or negotiate on behalf of cannabis and casino businesses.”

“Under current law, only special State officers or employees serving in the Departments of Education, Health, Human Services, and the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education are excluded from the law prohibiting special State officers or employees from holding an interest in, representing, appearing for, or negotiating on behalf of cannabis and casino businesses.”

The bill was introduced on Tuesday, January 2nd, and reviewed yesterday, January 4th. It passed the New Jersey Senate Committee. But the vote tally was not posted.

The companion bill is A 5911 by Assemblyman Joe Danielson (D-Somerset). It passed the New Jersey Assembly Appropriations Committee yesterday 6-2.

Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson), who is becoming a State Senator and formerly owned Garden State Dispensary, did not vote on it. Nor did Angela McKnight, who is also becoming a State Senator from Hudson and has been involved in the Jersey City cannabis licensing process.

New Jersey Cannabis Law Practice Problems

New Jersey Democrats Vice Chair Peg Schaffer is a partner in the law firm Schain Schaffer. She is also Chair of the Somerset County Democrats.

“It will impact me,” she noted.

Schaffer explained to Heady NJ she was appointed to the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority (NJSPEA) Board of Commissioners. They have authority over the Meadowlands sports complex in East Rutherford in Bergen County. It’s a volunteer position.

However, the appointment meant she cannot work on a lot of issues affecting her cannabis clients viewing for a New Jersey cannabis license and seeking to open.

So, she requested a waiver since her position does not directly deal with New Jersey cannabis law.

“There is no conflict,” Schaffer declared.

She was told the barring was an error and they never intended to bar similarly situated public officials.

Schaffer recused herself from the NJSEA Commission when a waiver didn’t work.

“I chose the clients over the authority for the time being,” she explained.

Schaffer has several cannabis clients. She argued that most of her practice has little to do with the State of New Jersey but rather the towns and contract negotiations type issues.

“It really is silly,” Schaffer argued.

She has many cannabis clients in South Jersey, Hoboken, Elizabeth, and a grower in Franklin in the New Jersey legal cannabis licensing process.

Schaffer said she has been asked not to say her clients’ names.

“I’m not in the business of disclosing my clients. It’s not really secret. It’s probably a matter of public record,” she argued.

Seeking an Exception

Schaffer said she would rather drop the NJSEA position than the clients and her specialty in New Jersey cannabis law. So, she talked to Governor Phil Murphy’s (D) Counsel and other people in Trenton. They indicated a bill needs to pass to address the issue. Then Scutari and Danielson introduced bills to address the situation.

When asked about the controversial issue of passing a New Jersey cannabis law allowing home grow and ending felony persecution, Schaffer said, “I’m in favor of it obviously, especially for patients. Some of the clients might not like it.”

In addition to handling cannabis and other private clients, Schaffer serves as town attorney in Lake Como in Monmouth County. They initially banned sales of cannabis in 2021, citing alleged uncertainty. In March, the possibility of allowing it was discussed. Schaffer has also just become the town attorney for Atlantic Highlands, also in Monmouth County.

Friends in High Places

Schaffer isn’t the only high-end political lawyer who has gotten involved in cannabis.

The New Jersey Democratic Party Chair, Leroy Jones, has had cannabis clients as well.

Several similar lawyers talk to friends in government for cannabis clients met through working or volunteer involvement on political campaigns and elected officials. Sometimes they also donate money to politicians as well.

Without them getting involved, cannabis was more likely to remain a stigmatized and more limited industry.

However, most such attorneys are not cheap for humble companies struggling to open their doors and make a profit. Some take on clients pro bono and do not charge.

The companies that can hire them will likely succeed against those who cannot afford them. Unfortunately, they might be the opposite of the Goldilocks ideal of a local, small, minority, and/or woman harmed by the War on Drugs entrepreneur succeeding in the legalized New Jersey cannabis market.

With the fight to secure a very limited number of town approvals turning to vicious trench warfare, a very good lawyer is a significant edge.

Dirty Jersey Politics

With U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) being on trial for bribery and corruption, New Jersey’s sometimes dirty political history shows how things have not changed as much as some would say and others would hope.

Conflicts of interest can be very difficult and very common in New Jersey.

Scutari’s senior cannabis policy advisor, Tony Teixeira, was found guilty of tax fraud and sentenced to eight months of house arrest and three years’ probation. Being a single father with a son with special needs, he got off lightly.

Thus, ethics in New Jersey cannabis law and the industry is a very significant issue.

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