New Jersey Regulator Grilled at Hearing Over Sluggish Adult-Use Weed Launch

The top cannabis regulator in New Jersey faced tough questioning on Thursday during a marathon hearing that looked into the oft-delayed rollout of the state’s adult-use weed program.

Jeff Brown, executive director of the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee during a hearing that reportedly lasted five hours.

The hearing came less than a month after recreational cannabis sales kicked off in the Garden State, a launch that was typified by one delay after another.

The troubled launch prompted Nicholas Scutari, the president of the New Jersey state Senate, to call for the hearings back in March.

“I’m confident that if we did not start this process, the adult weed market would still not be open in New Jersey,” Scutari, a Democrat who pushed for cannabis legalization for years, said at the hearing on Thursday, as quoted by NJ.com.

The hearing also featured “industry leaders and marijuana advocates [who] discussed the pace of setting up the Garden State’s recreational market, scrutinized pricing issues, and griped over still-unwritten regulations for employers seeking clarity on when they can and can’t discipline employees who use cannabis,” according to the New Jersey Monitor.

NJ.com reported that Wesley McWhite, the state’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission’s director of diversity and inclusion, also testified with Brown.

Legal adult-use cannabis sales began in New Jersey last month, drawing more than 12,000 customers who generated almost $1.9 million in sales on the first day.

But that grand opening came after the state had pushed back the launch.

In February, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said the state was hopefully “within weeks” of its first adult-use sales.

But in March, the Cannabis Regulatory Commission pushed back the scheduled launch of sales after opting against awarding licenses to several would-be dispensaries.

“We may not be 100% there today, but I assure you we will get there,” Brown said following that delay. “We have a few things to address and when we address them I’m happy to return to this body with a further update.”

That was the last straw for Scutari, who said at the time that he planned to hold special legislative hearings to look into the delays.

“These delays are totally unacceptable,” Scutari said in a statement at the time. “We need to get the legal marijuana market up and running in New Jersey. This has become a failure to follow through on the public mandate and to meet the expectations for new businesses and consumers.”

In calling for the hearings, Scutari said he wanted “explanations on the repeated hold-ups in expanding medical dispensaries to sell recreational marijuana and in the opening of retail facilities for adult-use cannabis,” and to learn “what can be done to meet the demands and reduce the costs of medical marijuana.”

On Thursday, Brown, according to NJ.com, “said the CRC delayed issuing licenses in March over fears there would not be enough supply of marijuana for both the medical and recreational markets.”

The New Jersey Monitor reported that the “lack of edibles in the Garden State was also a topic Thursday,” noting that “people can find flower, oils that can be vaped or ingested, and limited gummies” in dispensaries.

According to the publication, “edibles like cookies and brownies aren’t allowed under the current law, Brown noted, and any change to that would need to be approved by the Legislature.”

“There are ingestible avenues to purchase and consume, and we hope to expand those in the future. I don’t have a specific timeline,” Brown said, as quoted by the Monitor.

Per the Monitor, Scutari replied: “I’ll call you on that.”

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New Jersey Begins Accepting Applications for Recreational Cannabis Licenses

The state of New Jersey has finally begun to accept applications for recreational cannabis licenses on December 15. The Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC) announced that within the first four hours of applications opening, 500 people had already submitted their applications, with 635 accounts created by the end of the day.

“We are happy to reach this milestone,” said Jeff Brown, CRC executive director. “Applications are coming in, the platform is performing well, and we can officially mark the launch of the state’s recreational cannabis industry. Getting cultivators, manufacturers, and testing labs licensed and operating will set the framework and establish supply for retailers who will start licensing in March 2022.”

The CRC also noted that highest priority would be given to “Social Equity Businesses, diversely-owned businesses, microbusinesses, and conditional license applicants” when being reviewed. This includes applicants who were previously convicted for cannabis crimes, live in “economically disadvantaged areas” or fit the criteria of minority, women or disabled-veteran owned businesses.

Following Governor Phil Murphy signing three cannabis bills earlier this year in February, the CRC created the Office of Minority, Disabled Veterans, and Women Business Development in order to follow through with the promise of supporting diversity. A category was specifically created for Social Equity Business applicants as well, which includes “people who have lived in an economically disadvantaged area or who have convictions for cannabis-related offenses. Those areas are defined as places where individuals earn 80 percent or less of the state median household income ($90,444), and also have an uninsured rate of one to one-and-a-half times more than rates throughout the state, according to NJ.com.

The CRC held a New Jersey State League of Municipalities Conference in Atlantic City in mid-November to discuss the details of this process. There, CRC Chair Dianna Houenou confirmed that accepted applications with either be granted a conditional or annual license.

“The annual license is the bread and butter of what we typically think of when someone is applying for a license. It gives business owners the authority to operate the cannabis operation year round,” said Houenou. “The conditional license is meant to give applicants extra time to get all of their ducks in a row… They then have 120 days to meet the additional requirements for the annual license.”

Houenou also spoke about how conditional license applications would be prioritized over annual licenses. “If you look across the country, historically you can see how the need for property control has posed a barrier for a number of applicants looking to operate [a cannabis] business… We decided to lessen that burden as much as we could.” 

Despite the promises of fair consideration for diversity for recreational cannabis licensing, there has been some concern about considerations for the medical cannabis grower licenses recently. According to NJ Advance Media, most of the recently awarded licenses went to white women, leading some applicants to question if they actually received any extra “points” for being a minority applicant during the scoring process. Brown addressed the concern. “In the eight months since the CRC was established, we have completed key tasks started under the Department of Health to increase supply and provide additional access for patients in the medicinal market,” he said. “Now we have begun accepting recreational cannabis business applications under our new rules which prioritize equity.”

Al Harrington, former NBA athlete and owner of Viola Brands was one of the minority applicants that did not receive a New Jersey license. Harrington’s application writer, Jamil Taylor explained to NJ.com how difficult it is for Black-owned businesses to grow in the cannabis space. “It’s sad how they’ve structured the process, but that goes to show how valuable these licenses are,” Taylor said. “They’re limiting vertical integration, but they’ve already given vertical integration to the majority white companies.”

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