By Jay Lassiter
During a fact-finding trip to Colorado last month, two dozen New Jersey lawmakers, aides, and lobbyists paid a visit to Medicine Man Technologies, one of the state’s largest cannabis growers and retailers. The pungent, skunky smell of marijuana groves greeted them as they stepped through the door of Medicine Man Technologies’ light industrial facility on the outskirts of Denver.
Maria Rodriguez, an assemblywoman from Medford, didn’t miss a beat. “That smells like more money in the budget,” she quipped.
Rodriguez and her colleagues had come to Denver to acquaint themselves with Colorado’s booming cannabis industry. For three days they met with Colorado state legislators and regulators, tax officials, and public health researchers. They toured retail cannabis stores, spoke with entrepreneurs, and watched growers tend their crops at sites in and around Denver.
New Jersey’s battered, beleaguered budget can use all the help it can get, and Denver’s booming economy did not go unnoticed by the visitors. Construction sites littered the city. Turn left, you’d see a massive building project. Gaze right to see three more impressive buildings going up. In Denver, construction cranes were as ubiquitous on the horizon as the snowcapped Rocky Mountains.
OPPORTUNITY, NOT A CRIME
Marijuana legalization is at a tipping point nationally and state legislators know it. This Garden State crew was planning accordingly, in Denver to “do our due diligence and get this (ending prohibition) thing right,” Rodriguez told Leafly.
The fact that Rodriguez, a rising young Republican and former deputy commander in the Civil Air Patrol, interpreted the smell of growing cannabis as an opportunity and not a crime, spoke volumes about the change many expect to arrive soon in New Jersey.
“I’m concerned that we are missing out,” said State Sen. Nick Scutari, the trip organizer. For Scutari, a leader on legalization issues in the State House, the opportunity isn’t just about money. He’s keen on other benefits, too—like putting fewer of his state’s citizens in jail. On average, police in New Jersey make around 24,000 arrests for cannabis every year.
More and more of Scutari’s constituents are joining his support for legalization. A Rutgers-Eagleton poll taken in June 2016 found that 58 percent of New Jersey residents supported regulated adult-use legalization, with only 39 percent opposed.
Of course, that 39 percent includes New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, one of the nation’s most outspoken opponents of legalization. So nobody expects a change to happen immediately. But Christie won’t be there forever.
13 MONTHS TO PREPARE
In fact, the onetime presidential contender only has 13 months left in his New Jersey term. Christie has vowed to veto any move towards legalization during his tenure. Just recently, he proudly reiterated his determination to kill any progress on legalization. “You’re damn right I’m the only impediment” he said. “And I am going to remain the only impediment until January of 2018.” But once his term is done, many here expect cannabis prohibition to fall fairly quickly.
The current favorite to replace Christie is Phil Murphy, a former finance executive, U.S. Ambassador to Germany, and ally of Democratic Party stalwart Howard Dean. Murphy’s forward-thinking views on legalization could lead New Jersey to become the first state to end cannabis prohibition legislatively.
“By carefully watching what other states have already done, we can ensure a legalization and taxation program that learns from their experiences and which will work from the outset,” Murphy told Leafly in a phone interview. (He did not make the Colorado trip.) “But we must keep in mind this also is about social justice, and ending a failed prohibition that has served mainly to put countless people — predominantly young men of color — behind bars and behind a huge roadblock to their futures. New Jersey should choose to be a leader.”
State Senate President Steve Sweeney, a Democrat from rural Salem County, is the most powerful legislator in Trenton. It’s a post he’s keen to retain in the post-Christie era. Sweeney joined Rodriguez and others in Colorado, and he really liked what he saw.
“I was on board before we went, but I am absolutely sold that this industry can be regulated,” Sweeney said. “It’s safe, it’s well managed. Colorado has done an amazing job. “I wish all 120 [New Jersey] legislators saw what we saw in Colorado,” he told Leafly.”There wouldn’t be a [single] no vote. I’m committed to it.”
“We’ll have this firmed up, ready to go, in the very first quarter of the next administration in ’18,” Sweeney added. “I was on board before we went, but I am absolutely sold that this industry can be regulated. It’s safe, it’s well managed. Colorado has done an amazing job. This is a game changer for the state of New Jersey.”
HOW CAN NEW JERSEY GET IT DONE?
New Jersey’s referendum process is unwieldy and expensive. A statewide “yes” vote would have to come in the form of a constitutional amendment, which is an especially blunt instrument for ending prohibition. That’s why Scutari and others believe a legislative approach is the superior option.
One Colorado legislator told the New Jersey delegation as much.
“Our constitutional amendments are too detailed and inflexible,” Colorado State Sen. Pat Steadman told the visitors during one informational session.
“It would be much preferable to address this issue through statute,” Steadman told Leafly in a later follow-up interview. “I would eliminate most of what’s in our constitution and move it all to statute, retaining only the most basic concepts of a right to use, possess, and cultivate and directions to the legislature for creating a regulatory framework for businesses in this industry.”
“An issue of this magnitude should be a bipartisan legislative effort,” Republican State Sen. Kip Bateman told Leafly. “I’m impressed with what I’m seeing. If we can get this right, it could do a lot of good.”
A thoughtful, bi-partisan legislative process in Trenton could allow New Jersey to avoid some of Colorado’s early missteps. And in today’s increasingly pro-cannabis climate, there’s little risk for politicians who make ending prohibition a priority.
“There’s no political downside for pro-pot legislators,” said Steadman. “This was not a polarized, partisan debate in Colorado.”
PUBLIC CONSUMPTION CHALLENGES
Public consumption remains a criminal offense in Colorado, a glaring weakness in state law that disproportionally affects minorities, who are more likely to be cited for public consumption.
“Public consumption of marijuana should not be a criminal offense,” Dianna Houenou, an ACLU of New Jersey official, told Leafly. Houenou accompanied the legislators on their trip.”Choosing to craft marijuana laws and regulations in a way that excludes people who have historically been targeted by the failed War on Drugs would prove to be a failure of the promise of racial and social justice that legalizing cannabis offers.”
For policymakers with a social justice bent, getting the details right is critical. Because what’s the point of legalizing cannabis only to keep arresting smokers for public consumption? And it’s not just locals who suffer.
“Tourists can’t smoke in their hotel rooms; they need somewhere to go. Instead of smoking, edibles are easier to consume,” Colorado State Sen. Pat Steadman told Leafly. “You can do (edibles) anywhere. But edibles don’t have the immediate effect that smoking does, so some people grow impatient and take another dose and end up consuming too much. Current public consumption restrictions—which really apply only to smoking and vaping as a practical matter—create an environment where people inexperienced with edibles may consume too much.”
At the time of the tour, Denver voters were considering a citywide initiative to allow cannabis consumption in certain businesses and clubs. That measure was approved on Nov. 8, and it may help alleviate some of the public consumption pressure.
ARRESTS DOWN, COSTS DOWN
There are social justice concerns within Colorado’s industry, as well. Carrie Roberts is the client manager at Medicine Man Technologies, a leading cannabis company that runs one of Denver’s premiere retail and medical dispensaries.
“As a former law enforcement professional, I look at legalization from a totally different perspective.” Roberts told Leafly. “Police arrest more people for marijuana arrests than all violent crimes combined. Each one of those arrests constitutes a human life who will carry the burden of that arrest with them for the rest of their lives, even in states where it is now legal.
“In states that have legalized cannabis, the number of marijuana related arrests have plummeted anywhere from a 46% decrease in arrests in Colorado to 98% decrease in low-level marijuana court filings in Washington. This decrease saves jurisdictions millions of dollars in court costs and law enforcement time, and prevents the criminalization of thousands of people who can continue to be productive members of society.”
It was a point not lost on Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, one of three Republicans in the visiting New Jersey delegation.
“The earning power of those who become ensnared into the (criminal justice) system is greatly reduced and that costs all of us,” O’Scanlon told Leafly. “No one benefits when you have folks stuck in a dead-end job their whole life.”
These challenges persist even in states where cannabis is now permitted.
“Legalization substantially reduces the number of arrests, but the arrests that are still being made are disproportionately higher for other races and ethnicities,” Medicine Man Technologies’ Roberts told Leafly. “I want to continue to fight for drug policy reform that addresses the law enforcement practices that produce such racial disparities, which cause unrest between citizens and law enforcement that we continue to see in the media almost daily.”
New Jersey must be mindful to address these issues. A deliberate, legislative process would give the state an opportunity to address the bugs in Colorado’s law. Failure to do so would undermined the criminal justice goals that come with cannabis reform.
HOW NEW JERSEY’S MMJ PATIENTS COULD BENEFIT
Arguably the biggest beneficiaries of legalization should be medical marijuana users. Ken Wolski who runs the Coalition for Medical Marijuana in New Jersey, agreed. “Legalization will make medical marijuana much more available,” Wolski said in a phone interview from his New Jersey office. “It will change it from a prescription drug to over-the-counter.”
As the cannabis economy scales up, medical marijuana prices should go down. New Jersey patients currently pay about $450 an ounce for their medicine. In Colorado shops, anyone 21 and older can obtain cannabis for $190 an ounce.
There was ample discussion on the how ending prohibition might benefit New Jersey patients who currently pay a 7% tax on their medical cannabis. One legislator imagined a thriving recreational economy offsetting that 7% tariff.
But the biggest patient benefits could come with new research that would be allowed under a more open system.
Judi Duke of the Colordo-based Cannabis Outreach Education Network had some thoughtful advice for the New Jersey lawmakers: “It’s important in planning to include as many people as possible,” she said. “Not just policy-makers and researchers, but community members who will be impacted—industry, schools, youth organizations, retirements communities. I’ve found that you will have more buy-in and support from everyone if they are truly engaged and valued.”
THE TACO TRUCK EFFECT
At one point during the 90-minute tour of Medical Man’s facility, an employee started yelling “TACO TRUCK!” while running toward the door. A half-dozen colleagues soon chased after him.
It was lunch time. Judging from the response, that must be a heckuva taco truck. Then I realized what that moment symbolized. A robust economic relationship has formed between that taco truck—its owner and employees—and the 80+ employees at the Medicine Man facility. People gotta eat every day. It all adds up to lots of tacos.
It’s not just about increased tax revenue. There’s also a massive knock-on effect for businesses outside the cannabis industry.
Like taco trucks.
“Ancillary business opportunities are enormous,” Matt Best told Leafly. Best is a senior consultant at Medicine Man Technologies. “We’ve seen significant business opportunities created within consulting, legal and professional services, commercial and industrial real estate, security, HVAC, mechanical and electrical engineering, and packaging.”
“None of those industries are plant-touching,” Best added, “but every plant-touching operator needs those services. The economic impact for these industries, while often overlooked by policymakers, is significant.”
NJ’S LIQUOR INDUSTRY WANTS IN
The New Jersey contingent wasn’t limited to legislators. There were lobbyists on the Colorado trip, too—some of them from unexpected quarters. Like the liquor industry.
“If they have their way, cannabis legalization would simply be an offshoot of the liquor industry,” one source, who spoke off the record for candor’s sake, told Leafly.
Drug reformers in New Jersey have a soft spot here. Elected officials (mostly Democrats) could be open to the liquor industry’s “don’t reinvent the wheel” message, which argues that the state’s liquor distributors and retailers already know how to properly handle a state-licensed intoxicant.
The thought of profit-driven liquor companies locking up the cannabis market sends shivers down the spine of many who use cannabis for medical purposes.
So even as many on the fact-finding trip were allied in their interest in ending cannabis prohibition, they held quite different visions of what a post-prohibition industry might look like.
BACK HOME IN TRENTON
Upon their return, the legislators who made the Colorado trek briefed the New Jersey media. Their overall impression: two thumbs up.
State Sen. Nick Scutari, who led the delegation, declared that “the highly regulated program in Colorado appears to be a great success.”
Republican State Sen. Kip Bateman agreed.”Heroin overdoses in Colorado are way down. So are DUIs, and so is crime. That’s important in New Jersey, because in Hunterdon County and Ocean county [heroin addiction] is an epidemic.”
“What also jumped out at me,” Bateman added, “is how secure [the cannabis stores] are as far as keeping it away from children. They had armed guards at the door to prevent anyone under 21 from entering the facility. So they’re aware of the concerns with keeping this away from children. It was a real eye-opener.”
Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon landed in a more neutral position. “I’m not here today to endorse legalization,” he said. “What I am here to say is that as we move through this deliberative process, it’s every legislator’s job to get the kind of information that we got on this trip. We grilled law enforcement, regulators, and revenue folks. So far, the evidence and data that we have favors legalization by a wide margin.”
O’Scanlon was also keen to explore a statutory scheme for municipalities hosting legal cannabis sites, which would allow them to exercise some control over taxes levied in their own towns.
One legislator confessed that she had slipped away from the official tour to do some reconnaissance on her own. Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt is the chair of the Assembly Committee and the mother of two children. As a powerful committee chairman, she’ll be called upon to ensure that the needs of New Jersey’s children are front and center.
“We did a little bit of touring incognito,” she said. “We grilled the gentleman behind the corner about the products themselves.”
“Those products looked sterile,” Assemblywoman Lampitt said. “They didn’t look like they were marketed to children. That was a concern for me as someone who heads up the Committee on Women and Children. I also leaned that Colorado created their own warning stamp that goes on each and every cannabis product. Visually, these products look completely different from, say, a regular brownie or a regular cookie. So they’ve gone to great lengths to ensure that these products don’t look like something that would be readily consumed by a child.”
“Colorado really has learned throughout this whole process,” Lampitt concluded. “We don’t have to duplicate exactly what they did, but we can learn from their experience. We’ll be looking at California, Arizona, Massachusetts and Maine to see how they progress as well. I was afforded this opportunity [to go on this trip] and I’m gonna use to it to work with colleagues to actually formulate what I think New Jersey needs to do to move forward.”