What’s Next for Cannabis in New Jersey

Cannabis entrepreneurs are buying stock in New Jersey. It’s a wise investment. The Garden State is poised to blossom into an vast pot industry within the next two-to-five years.

How come? As with all things legal cannabis, the key is politics. Ex-Governor Chris Christie, Republican, was outspokenly anti-pot. After his term ended, voters elected Phil Murphy, a Democrat, into the governor’s office. Murphy campaigned with promises of broader access to legal cannabis.

So far he has kept his word. Starting with expansion of the medicinal cannabis program.

Under Christie the program had remained strictly limited both in number of patients allowed and the qualifying conditions. Murphy has reversed both.

The new governor spearheaded a bill that received approval from New Jersey’s legislature in March. Under the law, the number of conditions accepted for treatment greatly increased, and now includes chronic pain and anxiety. The legislation also did away with the hard cap Christie had in place of no more than 20,000 patients total.

Enrollee numbers are booming. About 1,500 signed up in April alone. Altogether, since Murphy took office, more than 4,200 people have successfully qualified for medicinal cannabis, bringing the state’s total to around 20,000.

First Murphy expanded New Jersey’s medicinal program, as he had called for during his gubernatorial campaign, and next he will set his sights on recreational cannabis. Murphy has called on his state leaders to help him pass laws for legal pot by the end of 2018.

A majority of his fellow state citizens are on his side. A Monmouth University poll released last month found that 59% of people in New Jersey would support legalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. That’s a jump up from 48% who answered similarly when the same poll was administered four years prior. Only 37% were opposed in the 2018 poll, down from 47% in 2014.

Where Murphy will face problems, though, is among the most outspoken politicians in his state.

While he does not have a vote in the state capitol, New Jersey U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur, Republican, counts many supporters from South Jersey. And he is adamant in his opposition to recreational pot.

“I think it’s nuts,” said U.S. Rep. MacArthur was quoted as saying. “We’re in the midst of the worst drug crisis in our history, and this new governor wants to do a social experiment and see – and test out whether marijuana is a gateway drug so he can raise money for the state?”

“Everyone knows that it’s particularly damaging to the developing adolescent brain, and yet he wants to rush off and make New Jersey the California of the East. Let him go be the mayor of San Francisco or the governor of California,” MacArthur added. “But don’t do this to the state of New Jersey.”

Fellow Republican U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance, who represents central parts of New Jersey, is also against broader legalization. “I favor medical marijuana, but I do not favor recreational marijuana,” Lance said in the same article. “I think it sends a very poor message to young people.”

New Jersey does also count U.S. Senator Devon Booker among its Congressional delegation, however, and the possible 2020 Democrat Presidential candidate has supported Murphy all the way with calls for recreational cannabis.

Among members of New Jersey’s state Congress, the support is reportedly not yet there. But momentum is growing. Already there are two bills under consideration that mirror legislation that has passed in states that now have legal cannabis markets.

Both bills have kinks to work out. Under question is the number of dispensaries New Jersey should allow. Early drafts of the legislation capped this number at 40. Pot proponents argued that this is far too few to meet demand. Newer drafts allow for ten times that many retailers.

Actual producers, however, would remain limited to 15 licenses, rising to 25 after two years. Transporter licenses, the middle tier, would max out at 80.

How high to raise the tax rate — 15% or 25% — is another point of debate.

With Murphy and Booker leading the way, legal pot in New Jersey is more a matter of “when” than “if.” Look for more entrepreneurs to buy up opportunities in the Garden State to get a chunk of the cannabis industry before it grows into a full-fledged marketplace sometime in the near future.

Kyle Swartz is editor of Cannabis Regulator. Reach him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com or on Twitter @kswartzz. Read his recent piece Mass Prepares For Retail Cannabis This Summer.