While New Jersey voters legalized cannabis last November, final regulations for the industry are still months away.
The Cannabis Regulatory Commission meeting on Tuesday, its fourth since mid-April, focused on two main topics: “Zoning and local considerations,” and “Concentrates and edible cannabis products; Protecting patient access during recreational market availability.”
Questions posed to the public for comment included, for example, “What zoning considerations do you foresee and how can the CRC work with municipalities to address them in regulations and implementation?” and “How would new product types–particularly those with high potency–impact public health and safety?”
Before the Commission began discussion of these topics, its chair, Dianna Houenou, said that three ad hoc committees had been formed to “help advance the work of some of the key components” of the Commission’s work. The three committees are: audit, public reporting and education, and bylaws.
The Commission also adopted interim quality control lab standards for medical cannabis products, which aimed, in part, to ease the bottleneck at the state-run lab as more cannabis businesses are licensed and need cannabis products tested. The interim standards will be in place until the Commission crafts final standards for both medical and adult use, and they essentially allow the existing licensed medical cannabis companies in the state to contract with private third-party labs, instead of having to turn to the state-run lab, which cannot keep pace as the industry expands. The Commission would still be able to obtain “certificates of analysis” from the labs, which would also have to be made available to the public, and it would also collect samples to test at the state lab to ensure accuracy.
As part of its public comment period, the Commission invited several speakers, including Janice Kovach, the mayor of Clinton Town and the president of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities; Tiyahnn Bryant, VP of the New Jersey chapter of Minorities for Medical Marijuana; Ken Wolski, the executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana of New Jersey; Chuck Latini, president of the New Jersey chapter of the American Planning Association; Mikhail Kogan, a board member of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation; and Beatriz Carlini, a researcher at the University of Washington’s Addictions, Drug & Alcohol Institute (ADAI).
The first up was Kovach, who urged the Commission to give localities “flexibility” in regulating cannabis activity within their borders, and said that the Commission’s regulations “should be the minimum standards for operation, not the maximum.” A couple of the areas of concern that Kovach flagged included odor control and proximity to schools and parks, and Kovach also suggested that localities should have “the ability to revoke a license.”
Dozens of localities have already opted out of cannabis sales. For some, Kovach said, an opt out might be more of a punt.
“Opting out is not necessarily saying ‘no.’ In some cases, an opt out is a ‘maybe later,’” Kovach said, pointing to the fact that municipalities have 180 days to decide whether to ban one or more license types, while the Commission also has 180 days to craft regulations.
“So as a result, municipalities that are opting out of all licensed establishments may not necessarily be against hosting cannabis establishments within their communities. They are simply delaying a decision until they know all the rules. It’s challenging to properly plan without knowing all the parameters,” Kovach said.
Houenou asked Kovach, “What kinds of issues do you expect the municipalities to be able to respond to in ways that the Commission may not be able to respond to?”
To this, Kovach responded: “traffic.”
“We know this is a new industry and it will draw individuals to the communities that are host communities,” Kovach said. “So, the ability to understand traffic concerns, parking requirements, and also standard quality of life issues that impact our communities.”
Bryant of Minorities for Medical Marijuana spoke next, and urged municipalities determining whether to opt out to consider how their residents voted on the November ballot measure to legalize cannabis in the state. He also noted that cultivation and manufacturing facilities “are highly secure, discrete, and very low traffic, which is the main concern for most of these cities,” and therefore suggested that municipalities can opt out of retail while allowing these license types.
Bryant’s final point on municipalities came down to access. “When it comes to cannabis, if you’re not well-connected or backed by a top tier lobbying firm, it’s just extremely hard to get on the schedule of lawmakers.”
On the topics of potency and patient protections, Bryant suggested that some retail outlets be medical-only, and that few restrictions be placed on product types.
Commissioner Maria Del Cid-Kosso asked Bryant, “How do we not make these products appealing to children?”
“We should be able to trust adults to place these products in places children shouldn’t have access to, but we shouldn’t harm our patients from having full access to the best and most robust products,” Bryant said.
Wolski, of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana of New Jersey, echoed this view during his turn to speak, and said, “Basically, our organization feels that anything patients need should be available to them, including the widest possible array of products.”
Next to speak was Latini, of the American Planning Association, who said that “there’s a lot of discussion within the planning community” about the August opt out deadline “as many towns weigh their options.”
“None of us were really granted any favors with this timeline that was baked into the legislation, especially as municipalities have to adhere to the planning and zoning requirements,” he said.
Overall, Latini agreed with Kovach, and suggested that the Commission be “instructive rather than prescriptive.”
“I would recommend the development of a list of considerations that towns might have to deal with as they zone themselves, but let them ultimately continue to work out those details,” he said.
Both Latini and Kovach also urged the Commission to finish awarding medical cannabis licenses that were allowed under a 2019 law, which Latini said will allow localities to “make informed decisions and not be concerned about overload of certain types of businesses.”
Carlini, of the University of Washington, focused on the topic of product potency, and spoke about research that points to negative mental health implications of THC consumption.
“Research available to-date points unanimously in one direction: there is a dose relationship response between THC potency, frequency of use, and negative consequences. In other words, as THC potency increases, so do the harms associated with it,” Carlini said.
Commissioner Krista Nash spoke about her experience as a social worker, and the thousands of opioid deaths in the state each year, and asked Carlini to share her thoughts on the potential for cannabis in helping patients to “avoid having to turn to opioids.”
Carlini clarified that she was not “questioning the importance of having a well-regulated cannabis market for people that benefit medically from it,” and added that cannabis can help patients “to manage pain in a much more efficacious way and less damaging way than other alternatives.”
Instead, Carlini said, her concerns are focused on “highly concentrated products” for non-medical use that are “highly-advertised” by the cannabis industry, as well as “cheaper” and “very shelf stable.”
Houenou asked whether the concerns around high potency products apply to patients who are using those products, or whether the concerns are lower for patients than for non-medical consumers “because they might not be using these high potency products as frequently?”
“The truth is, we don’t know that yet. Again, this is all so new to be able to control for. But what I would say about cannabis used for medical purposes, usually they have way more cannabidiol, or CBD, in it, which balances a lot of the effects of THC and may modulate and decrease the risk,” Carlini said.
The final speaker, Kogan, of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, spoke out against potency limits and said that, generally, the public will listen to regulators’ messaging around starting with lower doses in order to find a comfort level.
“I think that trying to regulate dosing percentages,” he said, “is completely irrelevant and not physically possible. It’s just a waste of time and effort. I feel that it’s way more important to concentrate on a clear labeling, on a child protecting bottling, as well as assuring of the quality.”
Ultimately, he said, “if somebody wants to recreationally take a very high dose, whether you have five milligrams, 25 milligrams or 50 milligrams, they’ll find their way to do it. They’ll simply take more.”
The next CRC meeting will be held on July 13.