Hurdles remain for legal marijuana as industry readies for launch

BY David Cruz, Senior Correspondent |

The governor and Senate president are counting on legal marijuana to help an ailing budget. The industry is poised to launch, but questions about what kind of marijuana industry New Jersey will create and what impact it’ll have on communities are raising concerns. Senior Correspondent David Cruz spoke to Bill Caruso, executive director of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform about the status of the bill and when it might make it through the legislature.

Cruz: Let’s start with the status of this legalization bill. Where is it now?

Caruso: There’s a question of where the bill is, right, what bills? You have three players right now in terms of efforts. You’ve got the Senate, the Senate has been working on this for a while. You have the Senate president who’s full on board and committed. Senate Chairman of the Judiciary Committee Scutari has been out there and aggressively advocating for a piece of legislation that he has in draft form. Now, we’re waiting to see what the Assembly’s going to do. Assemblyman Reed Gusciora has taken the lead in the Assembly on this initiative and I think he is working diligently right now to bring the Assembly version forward. We’ll see if that’s what incoming leadership, Craig Coughlin and his leadership team, are going to embrace and endorse and there will be a process there.

Cruz: Craig Coughlin is the incoming Assembly Speaker.

Caruso: Craig Coughlin has been selected as the new speaker. He will be formally elected in January concurrent with when the new governor is going to take office. He’s preparing right now, as you would expect him to do. And then obviously, David, we’re going to have a change. We’re going to have a change here that we haven’t had in eight years for this effort. We’re going to have a new executive, right, in favor of legalization and the details of which and how that looks are still being crafted by his transition team and will continue. I suspect what you’re going to see is a three-headed monster then form, the two heads in the legislature along with the executive are going to come together and formulate an idea here. So, we haven’t seen “the bill” yet, we’ve seen concepts.

Cruz: And sort of versions of drafts, I guess. So you have been involved in this effort for some time now. Tell me what you think the marijuana industry would look like in New Jersey.

Caruso: Sure, well what I hope it’s going to look like in New Jersey is going to look like New Jersey. We need to have a diverse effort. I think marijuana legalization by and far around the nation has been generally a success. I think it’s been a fiscal success for states, I think it’s been a social justice success for a lot of folks. It hasn’t necessarily been a great success in terms of racial diversity, particularly on the economic side. We are going to end the disparity in incarceration, hopefully, that’s gone on and we’ve seen studies on that …

Cruz: … that show a disproportionately number of marijuana arrests go to black and brown people?

Caruso: Yeah, black and brown people. It’s indisputable, and in New Jersey we have some of the worst numbers, so I’m looking forward to that. That’s not the end, right?

Cruz: And that’s part of this plan, right? It’s a little bit economic.

Caruso: Well, we want to make sure that the same folks that have been prosecuted have the ability to be part of this new economy. If we don’t allow minorities, women, small businesses to enter into this we’re really not going to have the true realization that we should as an economy for our state.

Cruz: So what kind of businesses will there be? I guess there will be growers, right, who would probably need large tracts of real estate, warehouses or whatever for growing, right? But then there’s this other area of coffee shops, retail outlets.

Caruso: There are so many aspects to legalization. I think that’s why you see such a broad number in terms of revenue projected on the tax side — $300 million to as much as $1 billion. So the baseline is retail shops, right? The kind that you see down on main street, a little storefront where you walk in and similar to a coffee shop, you can go in and buy your cannabis products. You’re going to also have these grow facilities, some of which will be in the farms, right? We have an unbelievable agriculture base in New Jersey. So some of this will be farm-based, more than likely indoor greenhouse or warehouse grow in some of our industrial areas. But then you see a whole other area here. Jersey was rooted once in time in a pharma economy. We’re in New Brunswick today and we’re talking about a lot of things that went on here. We have the ability to recapture that. There’s so much R&D going on in this space right now. The other place where we exceed in the nation is in terms of agriculture research. There’s so much going on in terms of agriculture, so I see from an R&D perspective phenomenal opportunities. And it may not be just directly related to the retail side of cannabis, there’s going to be so many other functions that I think we’ll benefit from in the economy.

Cruz: I guess a lot of that has to do with, we can’t really say and look at, say Colorado, and compare it to Jersey. The populations are different, the sizes are different, so this is going to be something that Jersey works out itself.

Caruso: It will, with some help from other places that have gone forward. Governor-elect Murphy has said we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. I agree with him there. I think there’s great lessons from the other states that have gone, both in medicinal and in legalization on the recreational side, and some have failed on their efforts, Ohio is one of those. And we learned some lessons from Las Vegas. The good news here is we are Jersey. We know what we’re doing and there is going to be a Jersey flavor to this and that’s going to be different than others because of our location, population and the like.

Cruz: There’s been some concern, I was reading in the Denver Post recently, how a great majority of marijuana-associated business is accumulating in communities of color and communities where poor people predominate. What are the implications of that to New Jersey? Because I guess a lot of that has to do with what local communities allow in their towns, zoning, etc.

Caruso: It does, and frankly we have to be careful because there are two sides to that story. We want to make sure that there are going to be members of those communities that are going to be able to work in these places, that are going to be able to own these places and profit from this industry. But we don’t want this entirely concentrated in poor, urban, minority areas. This effort, if it’s going to succeed, has to be global. One of the things, and one of the most important things, is hearing people pop up now with concerns, right? You’re hearing mayors coming together and not necessarily reject this idea, but they want to learn more. Great idea. I think this is a great time for public education. I think the more that we’re out there collectively having conversations out in the open, educating town governing bodies about what this is and what this isn’t going to be you’re going to see more of a likelihood that this will be spread on a broad base as opposed to being located in specific areas.

Cruz: And that’s something that local municipalities will have to work out?

Caruso: I think right now from the conversations, again there’s no piece of legislation that’s necessarily predominant and moving, there’s a conversation recognizing that New Jersey is a home rule state, so dictating to municipalities what should or shouldn’t be within their borders is going to be a very difficult proposition. Incentivizing though is a whole other question.

Cruz: So what happens once a bill is signed? How long before this industry is actually born?

Caruso: Well, we have an industry right now, in it’s nascent form on the medicinal side and there is an ability to potentially grow that, perhaps without even new legislation and we’ll see where the governor-elect’s going to go when he’s in. But through executive order he might be able to expand some of that. But on the legal recreational side, I think what we’re contemplating here is hopefully passage in the first 100 days and then perhaps an ability for some of these medicinal entities to turn on a switch and start selling to the general public for recreational purposes and that would give the ability to get people in. That will all be worked out in the bill. But I would say to you within the next year to 18 months we’re going to have the ability to go purchase recreation marijuana here in New Jersey.