Who’s going to benefit if marijuana is legalized?

Almost everywhere you turn in New Jersey’s political and business communities, the talk is about marijuana — legalize, decriminalize and mostly, monetize. To wit, this second in a series of symposia hosted by the New Jersey Cannabis Symposium, one of a handful of cannabusiness-focused trade associations that have been extending their reach across the state in anticipation of a legal marketplace.

“It is very exciting,” said Joshua Bauchner, a partner in the law firm of Ansell Grimm & Aaron, PC. “Our firm created a dedicated cannabis practice law group over two years ago, and since that time, we’ve represented a number of clients in the cannabis space, including those who are prospective licensees in the state of New Jersey.”

To be clear, there is no legal marijuana law in New Jersey. There are at least two versions of a bill that haven’t gotten a hearing, and a decriminalization bill being touted, and still other talk of a referendum on the issue. But that clearly has not stopped money people and entrepreneurs from gathering to talk about ways to make some money together.

“I think this industry is what I consider almost like wildcatting, so to speak,” said Gary Rosen of Marcum Accountants & Advisors, “because I think it’s an opportunity for everybody. I think if they do it the right way.”

The “right way” is a nebulous term in these earliest days of the industry. But many observers, on all sides of the marijuana argument, wonder if all the guys in the suits are so going to outnumber everybody else, that the people who’ve suffered the most under the state’s draconian marijuana laws, are going to be left out of the profits that are almost sure to follow legalization.

Keith Straub, who in 1970 founded the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, is like the godfather of the entire industry. He says New Jersey needs to make sure there’s room for the little guy.

“I would urge people, don’t limit them. Let the free market work its way,” said Straub. “Now, there will be losers. There will be some people who get a license and spend money to open a business, but over a year or two, they may go out of business. But that’s what a free market is about. We don’t want government picking the winners and losers, so I would urge New Jersey to open it up. Don’t limit the number of licenses.”

None of the bills under consideration in New Jersey are that liberal, and so the concern remains: how’s the minority, veteran or female-owned business supposed to get a foot in the door?

“When it comes to legislation, when it comes to policy, especially in New Jersey, is to make sure that we have a policy that includes provisions to help these communities, to make sure that people who are currently incarcerated can have their records sealed and expunged, so we have lower barriers of entry to the industry,” said Nelson Guerrero, co-founder of Cannabis Culture Association. “We make sure there’s an equity program involved to make sure people that look like us are getting involved in this legally correct.”

Chris Nadarajah of Newark said he was concerned about that, too.

“When I look around this room I see a lot more people in suits and ties than people in T-shirts and hoodies,” he said. “If you look at the capital requirements for a smaller business or entrepreneur like myself, it’s kind of difficult. I can’t come up with $2 million in capital requirements. But I want to get involved in this industry, so I came here to partner up with like-minded individuals and maybe I can get over that hump.”

It’s a big hump in an industry where the only people making money right now are the lawyers, accountants and, at over $300 a person, trade associations hosting symposia on how to make money with legal weed.

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