Cannabis panel debates how to help applicants with prior marijuana convictions
Commission reverses rule that would have prioritized those applicants for one year
Chairwoman Dianna Houenou said she didn't believe giving certain applicants priority over others would be "hitting the mark." (Edwin J. Torres/Governor’s Office)
A recent move intended 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 was rejected by New Jersey’s cannabis regulators Tuesday in a stunning about-face.
The Cannabis Regulatory Commission voted in June to give those applicants — called social equity applicants — the first shot at wholesale, distributor, and delivery services licenses for one year starting in September. But Tuesday, the commission voted to limit the time period after critics said the June decision would hurt cannabis entrepreneurs who were harmed by the drug war but do not fit the definition of social equity applicant.
Leo Bridgewater, a longtime cannabis advocate, said the June decision wouldn’t have helped New Jersey’s cannabis industry.
“It would be sacrificing the needs of the few over the needs of the many at this juncture,” he said in a phone interview after Tuesday’s meeting.
Under the new rules approved Tuesday, starting Sept. 27, social equity applicants seeking wholesale, distributor, and delivery licenses get priority for three months. Then for the next three months, diversely owned cannabis businesses — those owned by women, minorities, or disabled veterans — get priority.
Neither the June decision nor Tuesday’s apply to applicants for cultivation, manufacturing, or retail licenses.
The motion to change the June decision passed 3-1, with Commissioner Charles Barker voting no. Barker, often the lone ‘no’ vote, defended the initial one-year timeline as a move that would have helped people most harmed by marijuana prohibition. He emphasized that New Jersey’s marijuana legalization law is “about righting the wrongs of the failed drug war, period, hard stop.”
Chairwoman Dianne Houenou argued Black and brown business owners would have been shut out if the commission retained the one-year priority period.
“I think it is well-intentioned, though not quite hitting the mark, to exclude diversely owned businesses from being able to submit applications to the CRC in a timely manner that will allow them to be able to get up and running,” Houenou said.
Tiyahnn Bryant, founder of Roll Up Life, who is seeking approval for delivery applications, said he’s starting his business in his hometown of East Orange. Half of the city qualifies within the social equity criteria, and his business is one building away from the border carved out as an economically disadvantaged area, Bryant said.
“We’re understanding that we need to help people in the social equity lane,” he said, “but do we have to do that in spite of companies like mine, where the only thing that doesn’t qualify me or make me a social equity company is I don’t live next door, or I wasn’t arrested?”
Delgado said stories like Bryant’s show that the cannabis marketplace should not be limited. Barker responded that people speaking at the meetings don’t reflect the entire industry. Barker also disputed Houenou’s comments, saying the one-year time period approved in June hadn’t been put into practice, so it’s unfair to say it wouldn’t have worked.
Bridgewater said overturning Barker’s resolution was a smart move that will keep the industry moving. He said the idea would have been great when serious players, including social equity applicants, were getting interested, but doing it more than one year after the recreational cannabis market launched is “poor timing.”
Bridgewater also said the squabble over prioritizing one group of cannabis applicants over another does not address the market’s major problem: dispensaries not opening because of burdensome requirements and municipal hurdles. In order to open cannabis businesses, owners must also receive approval from the town they plan to open in, as well as the state.
“If we take a deeper dive into the why, it’s no secret that out of 565 municipalities in New Jersey, about 400 of them said no to marijuana,” he said. “That’s a big part of the overall problem.”
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