Those harmed by marijuana being illegal should benefit when it becomes legal

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In light of the impending November 2020 ballot question, in which New Jersey residents will be asked to vote on the legalization of adult-use cannabis, it is imperative now more than ever that legalization is enacted through the meticulous lens of social equity.

Meticulous in the sense that social equity programs must be more than an afterthought, more than an addendum to a bill and more than simple promises to act.

Social equity provisions must be statutorily enacted to ensure a stable foundation that will hold strong as New Jersey’s nascent cannabis industry continues to evolve.

New Jersey is no stranger to the criminalization of cannabis as it consistently ranks in the top three states in the country for the highest number of cannabis arrests and ranks 25th in the country for highest racial disparity in cannabis arrests.

Despite its incarceration history and despite spending more than $143 million of taxpayer’s money each year on cannabis arrests, New Jersey has yet to implement any social equity initiatives in the state’s eight-year history of having a medical cannabis program.

The Jake Honig Compassionate Use Medical Cannabis Act (or Jake Honig Act), enacted on July 2, 2019, provided certain measures to encourage the participation of women, disabled veterans and minorities but these “social equity initiatives” (as they’ve been called) fall short in various ways.

For example, the inclusion of micro-licenses in the Jake Honig Act reads well on paper. In reality, the ownership, size and quantity restrictions are not financially viable and there is no mechanism to convert a micro-license to a full license.

Even though the application costs for micro-licenses would be half that of a regular-sized license, applicants must still meet the same criteria which entail a large team of lawyers, writers, accountants and consultants, just to name a few.

Additionally, the Jake Honig Act provides that at least 15% of the total number of cultivators, manufacturer and dispensary licenses issued are to be awarded to a qualified applicant that has been certified as a minority business; and another 15% to certified women and disabled veteran businesses.

While these numbers look promising on paper, these numbers can easily be manipulated depending on when the application is filed, leaving room for companies to take advantage of these licenses. Even worse, as of yet, there are no avenues for those with cannabis-related criminal records to expunge their records, which can result in preclusion from participating in the legal cannabis industry.

As if the sting of New Jersey’s cannabis arrests rates weren’t bad enough, in a historic move, New Jersey also deemed medicinal cannabis businesses as “essential” along with hospitals, gas stations and grocery stores. Such a designation reveals the recognized legitimacy of cannabis as a medicine, not as a means to fill prisons.

If New Jersey is serious about righting its wrongs, it must create pathways for those harmed by the criminalization of cannabis by providing state-funded education, incubator programs, technical assistance, grants derived from tax revenue, automatic virtual expungements and priority licenses for those who qualify as social equity applicants, among other initiatives seen in other states.

New Jersey, given its robust and active participation in the criminalization of cannabis, has the responsibility to legalize cannabis in an equitable manner where social equity is the permanent main act, not the temporary opening act.

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