Cannabis agency to give priority to social equity businesses for some licenses

By: - June 1, 2023 8:52 pm

One commissioner said not enough has been done to help applicants who have been harmed by the war on drugs. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

The agency overseeing New Jersey’s marijuana market made a move Thursday that aims to increase the number of cannabis businesses run by people with prior convictions for marijuana offenses or who live in economically disadvantaged parts of the state.

For one year starting Sept. 27, the Cannabis Regulatory Commission will accept requests for certain licenses — wholesaler, distributor, and delivery service class licenses  — only from so-called social equity applicants, the commission decided at its Thursday meeting.

Commissioner Charles Barker moved to take the action, saying not enough has been done since the state’s recreational marijuana market debuted in April 2022 to help entrepreneurs who have been hurt by the drug war.

“Based on our current framework, I don’t believe social equity businesses — those most harmed by the failed war on drugs, that represents the people and communities that we want to see in the game — they’re not seeming to make it through the process to be considered for an award, let alone open up a business,” Barker said.

Out of 947 social equity applicants, less than 250 received approval as of December, agency officials said during Thursday’s meeting.

The agency emphasized the difference between the requirements for social equity applicants and diversely owned businesses. The latter includes businesses owned by women, minorities, or disabled veterans.

Under New Jersey’s marijuana legalization law, social equity and diversely owned applicants are already prioritized in the licensing process, along with applicants with businesses located in impact zones, nearly 90 towns that meet criteria based on population, marijuana-related arrests, crime index, and unemployment rate.

After Thursday’s action, anyone who is not a social equity applicant will be rejected through Sept. 27, 2024. The move will not affect people seeking cultivation, manufacturing, or retail licenses.

The motion passed with four yes votes. Commissioner Maria Del Cid-Kosso abstained, saying the commission should take into account businesses owned by women, minorities, and veterans. Barker said those businesses are not necessarily owned by those most harmed by cannabis prohibition.

Ron Wollner, a landlord in Eatontown working with a social equity cannabis business, told commissioners he’s witnessed the issues some applicants run into. The applicants he’s working with, seeking a cultivation license, are “burning cash” while the commission drags its feet, he said.

“If there’s something we could do, and if you’re serious about pushing social equity, let’s get these things across the finish line,” Wollner said.

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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.