New Jersey: The Gold Standard of State Cannabis Policy

Praise for lawmakers’ comprehensive approach and for building a legislative framework ‘that is sensitive to both local government and community needs’

Kelli Arthur Hykes
When the history of cannabis legalization in the United States is written, the New Jersey experience should be viewed as a pivotal turning point — the moment when states across the country really began applying best practices to cannabis policy. As Garden State lawmakers wrap up work on what will be the gold standard of state cannabis policy, they will also make history as the first state to organize comprehensive reform through the Legislature, rather than by ballot initiative.

And they’ve done it in less than two years. After almost a decade of anti-cannabis jawboning from the previous governor, this is nothing less than remarkable.

So what does doing this legislatively (and thoughtfully) really mean for the cannabis patients and adult use consumers in New Jersey?

A lot, actually. New Jersey lawmakers approached policy reforms comprehensively, addressing concerns from many stakeholders, and provided the framework for a functioning cannabis marketplace that is sensitive to both local government and community needs.

Cannabis delivery for both medical patients and adult use consumers is a good example. While states like Massachusetts are still grappling with how to organize an effective delivery program, and California just recently clarified its policy, New Jersey dealt with it from the get-go. As a result, safe and reliable cannabis delivery will be a hallmark of the New Jersey system. The law provides sufficient retail access to crowd out illegal market actors and ensures important safeguards like GPS tracking of delivery vehicles.

Social consumption

The issue of social consumption is another important policy area that many legal-access states have not addressed. Yes, cannabis may be legal in a state, but that does not mean one can consume it anywhere. Hotels and motels, Airbnbs, rental and public housing may all ban consumption in and on their properties. Outdoor public consumption is also often banned. Without legal establishments that permit this activity, cannabis policy reform is not fully realized, and law enforcement will find itself burdened with issuing public nuisance citations. New Jersey’s social consumption policy will allow retailers to operate lounges much like wineries have tasting rooms, all the while ensuring that indoor air-quality standards are preserved.

Expungement of criminal records for those convicted of minor cannabis-related offenses is also included in the final reform package. That policy is baked into the legislation, and not an “after the fact” issue that most other states are wrestling with. The law provides a mechanism to fund drug recognition officers, something other states and municipalities are just starting to look at. It also includes language that provides incentives to local and municipal governments within the state for a reasonable point of sale tax.

New Jersey lawmakers also looked ahead on zoning policy, empowering local municipalities to customize their own policies, but also giving them a sensible framework that will not require additional and burdensome changes to most local zoning codes.

And finally, in an industry projected to create nearly 32,000 jobs in the state, forging pipelines for talent is critical. New Jersey thoughtfully included ways for young people under the age of 21 (the legal age for cannabis consumption in New Jersey) to engage in internships, externships, apprenticeships and other earn-while-you learn programs to prepare them to work in the growing $10 billion-dollar industry.

History is made by people who show up. And the New Jersey Legislature certainly did that. The heroes and sheroes of this story are diverse, and representative of the many voices and concerns regarding cannabis across the state.

The people who made it happen

In the General Assembly, Annette Quijano, the Deputy Majority Leader and Assemblyman Jamal Holley made sure that social-justice issues were front and center of every discussion and debate. They built the provisions that will make New Jersey the model to follow for righting the wrongs of the failed “war on drugs.” A level playing field is the result of their efforts.

The far-sightedness of Craig J. Coughlin, the Assembly Speaker, whose consensus-building approach not only resulted in fair tax rates, but also a regulatory body that is set up for the long haul. Although the excise tax creates some administrative challenges, the Cannabis Control Commission, empowered by the Speaker’s work, will be able to easily lower the tax if and when needed.

Nicholas P. Scutari, the Deputy Majority Leader in the Senate was a true pioneer on this issue. He took the stigma out of talking about cannabis policy, making it a mainstream issue in the halls of the State House, as well as homes and businesses across the state.

Stephen M. Sweeney, the Senate President ensured that cannabis jobs are ones workers will be proud to have, with wages and benefits that help build and maintain a solid footing in the middle class.

And Sen. Declan J. O’Scanlon, Jr., who ultimately may not vote for the legislation, had a laser-like focus on health and safety issues as they relate to cannabis. His questions and insights simply made the legislation better.

Certainly, Gov. Phil Murphy, who made legalization one of his top policy priorities, deserves much credit. He laid the groundwork before he got elected and pursued groundbreaking legislation in the early half of his first term. He did not compromise on the quality of this legislation, even when a less thorough bill could have been more expedient.

At a time when people are down on politics and mistrustful of the process, New Jersey’s historic cannabis legalization is a shining example of “the people’s business” done right. Of course, there will be new lessons learned and opportunities to further improve, but for other states looking to legalize, trying to do this “better than Jersey” will prove to be a challenge.