Gov. Phil Murphy on Friday unveiled three picks to oversee New Jersey’s potentially lucrative recreational cannabis market, after voters approved legalization on Nov. 3 by a 2 to 1 margin.
Jeff Brown, who oversees the state’s existing medical marijuana program, which services almost 100,000 patients, will head this new agency: The Cannabis Regulatory Commission.
“In this new role, I will continue to fight to ensure our medical cannabis patients have access and continue our fight to market our program better,” Brown said during the Friday morning press announcement.
“We must do so in a way that acknowledges and provides for people in communities that have paid a higher price in the failed war on drugs,” he added. “If social justice and racial justice is not at the core of what we do for every decision we make, we are not doing our job.”
Murphy chose Dianna Houenou, a senior advisor within the governor’s office and long-time advocate of racial justice with an extensive resume in criminal justice reform, as chair of the five-member commission.
Houenou, an African American woman, spent several years as an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union. On Friday, she maintained that the new market “must be equitable.”
“It must protect patient access, reflect the diversity of the state and invest revenue into the communities most harmed by prohibition,” said Houenou.
Lawmakers and the governor said the five-member commission will oversee a myriad of laws and regulations for the new market, handling dozens or hundreds of retail, wholesale and cultivation licenses; taxation; as well as inspection to ensure cannabis products are up to safety standards.
To staff the commission, Murphy gets three picks and one each goes to Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-19th District.
The trio had a January 2020 deadline to pick all five members, but the only one made before Friday was Sweeney’s: South Jersey-based social worker Krista Nash, the wife of Camden County Freeholder Jeff Nash.
She will be one of the appointments, according to a press release from the governor’s office, but was not mentioned at the announcement earlier in the day.
“Once we have the commission in place, we can move forward with the legalization process that will deliver social justice reforms and create a new business sector that offers economic opportunities,” Sweeney said in an afternoon statement.
On Thursday, Murphy noted that New Jerseyans could be waiting upward of a year before they can actually go out and make a cannabis purchase.
Under the recently approved ballot question, the state will legalize cannabis as of Jan. 1, 2021. Marijuana transactions will be subject to the 6.625% sales tax, while municipalities can impose an additional 2% tax for their local coffers. The five-member commission would oversee both the medicinal marijuana and recreational cannabis sectors. The degree to which the commission will write the rules, and what other guidelines would be hashed out by lawmakers and the governor, remains uncertain.
During the Friday press conference, the governor repeated that those matters will be resolved in the legislation.
One of the state Legislature’s biggest proponents of legalization – Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-22nd District – said he expects to introduce a bill by Monday to legalize, regulate and tax adult-use cannabis for recreational use.
That bill would also handle how cannabis would be tested, how many permits and licenses will be given out, the types that will be distributed, and who will get them.
Two sticking points are the excise tax and the potential cap on new licenses, but they’re less “disagreements” and more so “just the two issues we’re working through,” according to a senior administration official.
New legislation would largely mirror what passed through the halls of Trenton during 2018 and 2019, the person continued, when lawmakers and the Murphy administration were unable to pass the close-to-200-page measure that found both sides publicly clashing over how to tax and regulate the industry.
Other issues were resolved by the medical marijuana expansion bill that Murphy signed in July 2019, the official said.
Possession of the substance remains illegal until then, under current state law. Murphy and Attorney General Gurbir Grewal maintained that prosecutors and law enforcement should exercise discretion when handling low-level marijuana offenses.
The governor did not answer questions on whether he would pardon convictions and commune sentences for marijuana offenses until then.
“God willing within a year you’re able to have a retail experience, potential sooner, potentially as well, in the medical dispensary side, only if Jeff and Diana are convinced that there’s sufficient supply such as we don’t eat into what it is there for the medical patients,” he said.
The supply chain has been a particular problem among existing dispensaries, with the future held up in court for many of the medical alternative treatment centers.
“They still have a lot of work to do,” Brown said during a late October event with NJ Cannabusiness Insider.