It’s all about balance as New Jersey’s adult use cannabis industry nears launch. Some industry stakeholders hoped that the Cannabis Regulatory Commission would, at its Thursday meeting, approve eight state medical cannabis licensees to start adult use sales as early as next month. Instead, regulators hit a brief pause, and emphasized patient needs and equity.
The Commission did, however, take concrete steps toward finalizing the foundation for the state’s first cannabis sales and approved 68 conditional licenses for applicants who want to grow and manufacture cannabis. Should these applicants clear remaining regulatory requirements, they are looking at being operational in the fall.
While the CRC tabled the expansion of existing Alternative Treatment Centers (ATCs), or what New Jersey calls medical cannabis dispensaries, it isn’t on the backburner, according to regulators. Some of the largest cannabis companies in the U.S. hold these licenses in New Jersey, like Curaleaf and Columbia Care.
“We may not be 100 percent there today, but I assure you we will get there,” Jeff Brown, CRC executive director, said before the board officially tabled the measure on ATC expansion. “I assure you the staff is committed to doing this, but we need the industry to work with us. We’re almost there. We have a few things to address, and when we address them, I’m happy to return to this body with a further update.”
Brown said that the goal is to “work” with the cannabis industry so that at the “very next” CRC meeting, which is scheduled for April 11, “we have a cohort of ATCs that are turnkey ready to launch this market here, simply pending a vote by this commission.”
Throughout the meeting, officials returned to the topic of equity, as the state will prioritize equity applicants. Brown provided some early data on the breakdown of applicants’ demographics because of “some stakeholders that have questioned some things regarding equity in our licensing process,” Brown said.
“It’s important to disclose this first round because this is a historic action that this commission is prepared to take. These are the very first recreational licenses that this commission is going to issue. And so we want to be transparent with stakeholders,” Brown added.
Returning to the subject of ATCs, Brown said that one of the biggest concerns is whether these businesses will be able to meet what is expected to be a wave of demand from adult use customers without disrupting patients’ supply. Brown turned to Covid-19 as an example of the “collaboration” needed between regulators and the cannabis industry.
“While there were, of course, stressors on the market, there were no long term closures of facilities. There were no market-wide shortages of products, and patients could continue to access their medicine,” Brown said. “I bring this up because we are once again at the precipice of an event that will bring stressors on the market, albeit for a much more positive reason, the launching of recreational cannabis sales, but nonetheless an event that needs to be planned for, to ensure that patients can continue to access their medicine.”
Commissioner Charles Barker echoed the point. “We are right on the cusp of transitioning. And as we do, we must remain focused on the big picture, that part of the reason cannabis was legalized was to right the wrongs of the failed drug for people and communities most harmed, to provide accessible, tested cannabis products that patients and consumers can rely on for safety and overall well-being. And we don’t want to rush this and get it wrong.”
Dianna Houenou, chair of the Commission, gave an update on equity efforts, including a brief overview of recent hearings held to discuss how cannabis revenue can be used to support equity-related initiatives. Houenou said a workgroup focused on workforce development has been collaborating with the Department of Labor and community colleges to help create a cannabis workplace training program. Another workgroup was focused on business support, she said.
Houenou also discussed the new Cannabis Business Navigator tool that gives more nitty gritty information on what it takes to build and run a cannabis business.
“Access to capital, that has been an underlying theme that we have heard at the Cannabis Regulatory Commission repeatedly,” Houenou said, adding that this prompted the CRC to work with the Economic Development Authority and “other private partners” to explore “potential” financial assistance programs, including grants or loans. Regulators are weighing “what may be most feasible and most ready to launch quickly to help support New Jersey’s prospective cannabis business entrepreneurs.”
In nearby New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced a $200 million public-private equity fund when she announced her budget proposal.
Houenou also emphasized the shared role between the industry and regulators when it comes to equity.
“Together, we’ve created fertile ground for having a medical and recreational cannabis industry with responsible operators and safer products. And as we continue to prepare for the opening of the recreational market, I hope we can all remain vigilant in preserving all our accomplishments,” Houenou said. “Not only should government agencies like the CRC be making deliberate steps to be inclusive, but we also hope to see private individuals, private banks, landlords, suppliers and employers also take care to afford people equal opportunity to participate in this industry without prejudice.”
Many members of the public stepped forward during the comment period, including frustrated applicants and those asking for regulators to push the legislature to allow for home grown cannabis.