TRENTON – No one can escape the bureaucracy of the New Jersey state government, not even the nascent New Jersey cannabis industry.
Members of the state Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday spent hours hearing from and asking questions of officials from the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission as well as advocates and experts, just three weeks after the first legal weed sales for recreational purposes began.
“This is an economic opportunity for New Jersey to create jobs, to create revenue, to get taxes but also to get the stigma of marijuana off our streets — to stop arresting our people, stop destroying our lives before they’ve begun,” Senate President Nick Scutari, D-Union, said. “I think we’ve taken an important first step. This committee is moving the topic back to the forefront because it’s important.”
Scutari ordered the hearings in March after the CRC tabled an agenda item to approve medical marijuana dispensaries to begin retail sales.
Commissioners and Executive Director Jeff Brown said the delay was necessary because the medical marijuana operators couldn’t prove they could open up for recreational sales while also catering to their existing medical marijuana patients – over 130,000 of them, who are served by just 23 dispensaries statewide.
But Scutari’s announcement of hearings seemed to push the CRC to act. Within days, they announced a special meeting for April 11, when they granted the approvals.
On April 21, 12 medical marijuana dispensaries began selling legal weed for adult use – a cannabis industry term which refers to the recreational market – more than a year after Gov. Phil Murphy signed New Jersey marijuana legalization into law.
Cannabis flew off the shelves, with dispensaries selling nearly $1.9 million of legal weed to over 12,000 customers on the first day alone.
Here are some main takeaways from the NJ legal weed hearing on Thursday.
Employers (and legislators) want clarity on how to handle marijuana use by their employees.
It’s supposed to work like this: Employers are allowed to bar their employees from being impaired in the workplace, and they can order the employee to submit to a drug test if they have reasonable suspicion that the employee was high at work.
But under the New Jersey marijuana legalization laws, that drug test isn’t enough. Tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive component of marijuana, can stay in the bloodstream for weeks, so it’s impossible to prove whether the THC was from an off-duty joint three weeks ago or an edible consumed while on the clock that day.
In order for the employer to discipline the employee, they must also be examined by a “Workplace Impairment Recognition Expert,” or WIRE, a new job title created by the law. That person would be charged with determining if the person was actively impaired using field sobriety tests.
The CRC was supposed to issue guidance on how these WIREs would be licensed or certified. It hasn’t happened yet.
“This is a huge area that needs to be addressed,” Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Morris, said. “You have a lot of people out there who are just waiting for the ability to get these folks in place so they can follow the regulations without the possibility of (a lawsuit).”
CRC Executive Director Jeff Brown said those regulations were coming, but that the commission had to handle other priorities first, such as the regulations governing the opening of the actual cannabis industry.
“Our responsibility is to put together those WIRE standards. We’re focused on doing that,” he said. “It’s a new concept in the New Jersey statutes, but know that the commission is certainly working on it.”
Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen, introduced a bill last year that would specifically prohibit employees whose jobs are governed by federal laws – such as police officers, CDL-licensed drivers and heavy machinery operators – from consuming marijuana even off the clock.
Sarlo, who works in the construction business, said the CRC needs to be more definitive about what it actually oversees.
“There needs to be some clarity about what’s in the purview and what isn’t in the purview of the CRC,” he said.
Legislators are concerned with the exorbitant price of cannabis, especially for medical marijuana patients…
Marijuana is legal in New Jersey and, like anything else in the Garden State, it won’t come cheap.
Brown estimated that an eighth-ounce of legal weed from one of the 12 dispensaries licensed for adult use sales currently costs between $50 to $65, which equates to $400 to $520 per ounce.
An online menu for a Michigan dispensary showed eighth-ounces for as low as $20. An eighth-ounce of legal weed could cost as little as $28 in Massachusetts, according to one dispensary.
Brown said the best way to bring the prices down is the expansion of the market.
“It’s simple supply and demand,” he said. “We have a lot of demand and limited supply. It’s about getting new businesses licensed, giving new opportunities to entrepreneurs and that’s how we lower the prices.”
…but home grow still seems like it’s a foreign concept.
Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, has been a longtime proponent of allowing some level of “home grow” by marijuana customers and patients.
“In the interest of adding more supply and adding more people, would it be logical … if you were to allow home grow so you can have some downward pressure as it relates to pricing?”
New Jersey is the only state with legal weed that doesn’t allow its medical marijuana patients to grow cannabis at home.
Washington is the only other state, along with New Jersey, that doesn’t have a home grow program for its recreational customers.
Growing one cannabis plant in New Jersey is a third-degree crime, with a prison sentence up to five years.
But Brown largely declined to even discuss the possibility of home grow, noting that it’s out of the CRC’s control.
“I can’t speak to that necessarily, I haven’t seen any data on it.”
But he said another way to bring prices down was to create more opportunities for small cannabis cultivators, who can sell immature plants to other cultivators and “create a market for plants.”
New legal weed business applications are pouring in.
If the CRC’s goal is the expansion of the market, they’ll have plenty of options to choose from.
Over 900 applications for a recreational marijuana license – to grow, manufacture, test or sell have been submitted to the CRC, Brown told legislators. Over 500 of those applications have to be reviewed.
To date, the CRC has issued 102 conditional licenses to recreational cannabis cultivators and manufacturers.
Mike Davis has spent the last decade covering New Jersey local news, marijuana legalization, transportation and a little bit of everything else. He’s won a few awards that make his parents very proud. Contact him at [email protected] or @byMikeDavis on Twitter.