In less than one month, New Jersey’s newly-formed Cannabis Regulatory Commission has held three meetings as they move swiftly to launch the state’s adult use cannabis industry.
This week’s meeting, held Tuesday evening, was focused entirely on equity. For more than three hours, dozens of speakers shared personal experiences with cannabis and perspectives on how they hope regulators shape rules.
Ahead of the meeting, the Commission included several questions on its agenda for speakers to consider, for example, “what barriers and problems need to be addressed?” and “How do we ensure individuals that have been harmed by unjust drug laws have a place in this industry?” The Commission emphasized that “this will not be the only opportunity to weigh in on this topic – only the first.”
At the start of Tuesday’s meeting, the Commission’s executive director, Jeff Brown, gave an update on licensing for the medical cannabis industry before turning to the topic of the day. Brown stressed that “to help address social equity in the cannabis industry” the adult use law has given the Commission “tools that we will need feedback from all of you on how to use effectively.”
“We are all talking to other states and localities about what is working and what isn’t. But importantly, we want to hear from you, the community, as to what you think is working, what isn’t. What are the barriers that exist in getting into this market? What should we look to replicate here from other states? What should we look to build anew? What in these statutes before us can help us at the Commission make this a market that is truly built on equity?” Brown said before yielding back to Commission Chair Dianna Houenou.
Houenou called the public input “vital,” and then opened the meeting to public comment. Speakers ranged from those pitching services, like training, that could be applicable to the industry, to those already directly involved with equity efforts in the industry, to those who have been arrested or otherwise impacted by enforcement of cannabis laws.
Ami Kachalia, a campaign strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, highlighted three main suggestions, while noting that a more robust list would be provided to the Commission.
The first, Kachalia said, is “to create an equity applicant designation that prioritizes the inclusion of people who have been most harmed by cannabis criminalization,” adding that these applicants would have to own at least 51% of the business “because it’s important to prioritize ownership and control.” These applicants should then be eligible for “startup capital, prioritization in the application process, fee waivers, technical assistance and other kinds of support.”
The second, Kachalia continued, is to ensure “there is real access to capital available for equity applicants and for minorities, women, and disabled veterans,” considering the high costs of starting a cannabis business. And third, along those lines, Kachalia urged the Commission to “provide some guidance for local municipalities so that they understand their role in the implementation process” and “do that role through an equity lens.” For example, they should not put in place “onerous fees” that “essentially make it impossible for people who are not well resourced” to compete.
Nadir Pearson, the deputy director of New Jersey NORML, called for “exclusivity around types of licenses,” pointing to Massachusetts, where delivery licenses were reserved for equity applicants. Pearson also called for regulators to allow home cultivation, which, when it has come up in the past, the Commission has made clear is something that advocates and stakeholders need to take up with the legislature, as it is outside of their authority.
Other speaker suggestions included transparent benchmarks and reporting, enforcing collective bargaining agreements, and ensuring expedience in expungement of eligible cannabis convictions.
At the end of the hours long meeting, Commissioners gave closing statements.
“What we Commissioners will be doing from here is taking back all of your input, your ideas, your recommendations, digesting them a bit and figuring out: how do we move forward from here?” Houenou said. “What systems can we the Commissioners actually put in place, and how can we make sure that those supports are supportive, that they actually live up to the goals and the values that we espouse here?”