Cannabis News

Why is it taking so long to be able to buy legal weed in New Jersey?

It was almost a year and a half ago when New Jersey voters, by a wide margin, chose to allow recreational cannabis in the state. Almost 500 days. We were told we’d be able to buy weed legally by February. That, obviously, has passed. So, why the delay? Is this just another example of NJ bureaucracy gumming up the works?

Maybe. But, consider this: If recreational shops were to open this month, or if medical shops were approved to sell recreational cannabis—as Gov. Phil Murphy suggested in a recent interview with WBGO—it actually wouldn’t be that much longer of a process than in other states. In Colorado, which was the first of two states to allow recreational cannabis sales (with Washington), 14 months passed before the first 37 stores opened their doors. Washington took 20 months. Meanwhile, New York—where voters passed a legal cannabis bill in the same election as New Jersey—has set an 18-month timeframe to get the industry up and running.

It’s all but certain that medical cannabis facilities, which have been allowed in the state for a decade, will be allowed to transition first before recreational-only facilities open. Recreational-only facilities are likely months away.

The delay is caused by multiple factors. First, the state Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC) only set industry operating guidelines in August, when municipalities had to decide whether or not to allow businesses that directly sell or wholesale, grow or manufacture cannabis. About four out of five municipalities in the state opted out, citing the unclear parameters of the industry, knowing they’d be allowed to opt back in at any time in the future. Now that applicants for cultivation permits have submitted their information, many are hearing that they need documented approval from their municipality that they’ll be able to operate.

Too, New Jersey’s legalization bill includes social justice aspects, and Murphy told WBGO that ensuring equity in the industry has made it “more complicated to get off the ground.”

It’s, indeed, caused some unique issues. For instance, because the state has pledged to prioritize business applicants of color, out-of-state cannabis business operators have sought to take advantage of the well-intentioned guidelines by offering partnerships to BIPOC business owners in the state.

Too, opening the gates to all businesses now risk shutting out those who rely on cannabis for medical problems. 

“The reality is if we were to open the adult-use market right now with the existing businesses that are online right now, it would be dominated by [multi-state operators,” Dianna Houenou, CRC chair, recently told NJ Monitor. “We need to make sure we’re ready to open to the public, because if we don’t do that and we rush into opening the market, there’s a substantial risk that patients will lose access, there will be long lines and wait times, and that could lead to an immediate supply crisis.”

What’s certain is that the delay isn’t due to a lack of interest. Nearly 500 entities began the application process for cultivator licenses in the first hours of the CRC portal going live. Until late February next year, only 37 cultivator licenses will be approved. However, applications for dispensaries will open March 15, and the number of licenses distributed is unlimited. Approvals will be given on a rolling basis, and applicants of color, women and disabled veterans will get priority consideration.

Some towns in the state are laying the groundwork for when recreational businesses will be able to open. A Hoboken city subcommittee, for instance, recently approved the siting of a future retail cannabis business in the old Hudson Tavern on 14th Street—final approval will be considered later this month.

Meanwhile, other parts of the legalization bill are still being enacted, or at least progressing. The state has already expunged more than 360,000 low-level cannabis offenses from the public record, meaning people no longer have to report them on a job, housing or college application. Low-level offenses include possession of cannabis or paraphernalia, distribution of less than an ounce, or being under the influence.

Too, the state held the first of three hearings this week to cull ideas on how to use tax revenue from cannabis sales for social equity causes. Per the bill, all of a Social Equity Excise Fee and almost 60% of the tax revenue from cannabis sales will fund social justice programs in communities most affected by the war on drugs. In the first meeting, focused on North Jersey (the other two will hit Central and South Jersey), suggestions largely involved financial and educational tools to help women, minority and disabled entrepreneurs and community members.

The delay in allowing recreational pot shops also, effectively, pushes back consideration of allowing other cannabis uses. The state law that passed bans growing a limited number of cannabis plants at home, and the sale of most edibles, though Murphy has expressed a willingness to consider those items, noting that they’d have to approved by the legislature, and not by the CRC.

So, the first legal weed you’ll be able to buy may (or may not) come later in March, very likely from a medical store. With recreational dispensaries only able to apply on March 15, it may be until late summer (if even then) that you’ll be able to walk through their doors. It’s not just frustrating for the consumer, but businesses, too, which are going to have to wait to grow, or grow and then wait to sell. Either way, it’s a sticky situation.