With the passage of landmark marijuana legislation last week, New Jersey has come closer to legalizing marijuana than ever — but that does not mean the public will be able to purchase weed legally in the new year.
Many see the step as not a victory lap, but the onset of a new kind of effort.
Officials must still fully seat the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, which will design and oversee regulations and licensing. Municipalities need to adopt ordinances and regulations of their own, marijuana growers must increase the amount of product in the state and new dispensaries need to apply for and receive licenses, roll out business plans and set up shop.
And, not to forget, Gov. Phil Murphy still needs to sign the legislation into law.
“It’s still too early to tell” when sales will begin, said Jeff Brown, who oversees the medical marijuana program and was recently named executive director of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission. “We need a law. Just from a supply perspective, we’re looking at really a need to continue to expand medical, and also prepare for broader legal sales. For both, it involves doing regulations.”
Medical dispensaries will get the first crack at selling to the public, but Murphy’s signature won’t flip that switch. The medical companies will have to show they can fulfill the needs of patients before pivoting to the public, but it’s not yet clear if regulators will require they meet metrics on a case-by-case basis or must do so in bulk product as an entire industry.
The state’s 100,000 patients have long complained of product shortages and long lines at the dispensaries. Adding 1 million predicted marijuana consumers to the list would wreak havoc on patient access.
Still, five industry insiders who spoke to NJ Advance Media for this story remain hopeful New Jersey could begin selling to marijuana to the public by late 2021 or early 2022. That would prove quicker than Massachusetts, which took two years following its legal weed referendum, and Maine, which saw a wait of nearly four years.
“There’s a lot happening in the medical program coinciding with the potential first sales date,” said Susanna Short, an industry consultant who has worked with New Jersey’s 12 existing medical marijuana companies. “We can’t just push patients to the side in order to sell to the adult use market.”
Several of the medical companies plan to open satellite medical dispensaries in early 2021. The bill also allows them to expand their growing capacity to meet increased demand. Short said she thinks it’s unrealistic new dispensaries will have licenses by mid-year, but that the alternative treatment centers could find themselves in a better place.
Others share that optimism.
“I‘m hoping that we strike that balance in terms of product and supply within the next six months,” said John Fanburg, co-chair of the cannabis law practice at Brach Eichler. “There are a number of moving parts.”
Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, predicted in October that the current medical cannabis dispensaries could begin sales as soon as his legal marijuana bill passed. Brown quickly dashed those hopes and other experts did a double-take upon hearing the comments.
The promising news: Marijuana supply has already increased. In March, the medical program produced around 7,000 to 8,000 pounds of marijuana a month, Brown said. With new operators coming online in 2020, that has nearly doubled to 12,000 to 14,000 pounds.
“We’re pushing the industry to expand supply for medical,” Brown said. “That’s what’s in law right now. We have to sort of be stewards of what the current statutes say.”
Curaleaf, the largest medical marijuana company in the state that already wholesales product to other dispensaries, plans to increase its growing capacity by 200%, opening two new dispensaries and a grow site by mid-2021, said Patrick Jonsson, the company’s regional president for its northeast operations.
“That’s really for us to get ready not only for expanding our medical footprint, but it’s really going to set us up for adult use,” he said.
If the commission has its rules 180 days after the bill’s passage, Curaleaf can be ready by then, Jonsson predicts. But he pinned the third quarter of 2021 as more likely.
Others agree — although with cautious optimism.
“I do believe — if they get the rules set up — you could see sales as early as August or September,” said Vaughn McKoy, an attorney and member of the cannabis advisory group at Inglesino Webster Wyciskala. “That’s really moving at a lightning fast pace.”
The commission could adopt its rules any time in the six months after Murphy signs the law. It’s unlikely that will occur immediately, seeing as the panel still needs four more members.
“It really is going to depend on how fast the Cannabis Regulatory Commission can get these rules set up,” he said. “Everybody waiting to see, who’s going to be this body that’s going to be regulating this new industry?”
Once the commission has its regulations and even green lights medical dispensaries to begin sales, then begins the application process for new businesses. They will have to secure property, apply for a license, work with municipal regulations, start construction and hire employees.
While it’s almost certain New Jersey won’t be green by January, the Garden State is still on track to beat its neighbors in New York and Pennsylvania when it comes to starting marijuana sales.
“It really creates an opportunity for New Jersey to be the first in this region,” said Fanburg. “Does all of that take three months, nine months, or 12 months? It’s really too hard to tell, because nothing has been established.”
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