NJ legal weed deadlines are approaching. What will the next year bring?

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The next six weeks will set the tone for the next year of legal weed in New Jersey.

The New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission is set to meet Tuesday, at a time when marijuana is at the forefront of municipal government meetings as local officials try to figure out if and how deep they want to get involved in the cannabis industry. 

Towns have until Aug. 21 to pass ordinances opting out of the industry — banning marijuana sales and businesses — or altering their zoning laws to regulate where such businesses, like dispensaries, could be located. 

That same date is a deadline for the state commission to publish its rules and regulations for the legal weed industry, the first step before accepting proposals for issuing licenses for recreational marijuana businesses. 

"There's a very high level of expectation. People who are interested are already developing their businesses — reaching out to the service providers they need, the real estate market, the attorneys — all in hopes of getting the infrastructure they need to submit a successful application," DeVeaux said. "People are getting ready."

The CRC has invited speakers on Tuesday to discuss regulations for packaging, labeling and advertising cannabis products and companies. 

Packaging and labeling has been a minefield in other states where recreational weed is legal as regulators seek to keep cannabis products out of the hands of children — specifically edible forms of marijuana, like chocolate and cookies.

On the black market, such products are often sold in packaging that parodies a candy bar or other product.

Advertising is an equally tricky task for cannabis businesses, as they can't advertise on television or radio. Since marijuana is still illegal under U.S. law, the Federal Communications Commission-controlled airwaves are off-limits.

Some states have placed further bans on how and where such companies can operate. In Colorado, cannabis companies famously sponsored highway clean-ups and used "adopt-a-highway" signs as their advertising to get around a ban on billboards.

Here's what you need to know about legal weed in New Jersey, and what to keep an eye out for over the coming weeks: 

Towns are opting out of marijuana

Over 100 municipalities in New Jersey have already adopted or are in the process of adopting ordinances that would completely opt out of the legal weed industry. 

Some have passed ordinances that will allow marijuana businesses, but only in certain zones and under certain rules. 

The reasons for opting out of the marijuana industry are varied. Some municipal officials are just flatly against marijuana. In Point Pleasant Beach, Mayor Paul Kanitra said it's "not because I'm anti-marijuana, it's because I'm anti- any more vices in town." 

In Lacey, Mayor Peter Curatolo, as the township committee voted against weed businesses, claimed that gangs would come in and undercut legal weed. He  suggested that marijuana users "Uber some pot over if you need it that badly."

But far more municipalities have opted out simply due to the time constraints, claiming six months was scant time to permit them to decide the future of weed businesses within their borders.

"Towns are banning it only because the state said, 'you have six months to figure out what you're going to do with this,' and unfortunately government doesn't move that quickly," Howell township manager Brian Geoghegan said last week, as the town considered an opt-out ordinance simply as a time-saving measure.

The League of Municipalities, which offers information and guidance to municipal officials, has recommended towns opt out until the CRC, which oversees both the legal weed and medical marijuana industries in the Garden State, issues its formal rules and recommendations.

The League of Municipalities has told municipal officials that they can always revisit the issue later, and take the time to rewrite their ordinances to allow such businesses under specific circumstances.

Some municipalities are going full speed ahead with legal weed, including Jersey City and Atlantic City.

A number of smaller suburbs, often with bustling downtowns or big business corridors, have passed or advanced ordinances embracing legal weed, including Somerville, Highland Park and Neptune.

"Someone had to be first and it might as well be us," Somerville Mayor Dennis Sullivan said.

It's crunch time for the CRC

The legal weed industry in New Jersey will remain at a standstill without three major decisions to be made by the CRC. 

First, there are the rules and recommendations that will govern how the legal weed industry will work. The marijuana legalization laws enacted in February left a lot of power in the hands of the CRC, which has until Aug. 21 to publish and adopt them.

Edmund DeVeaux, president of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, said he expects the regulations to be rolled out gradually, starting with some guidance on what will be required in order to get a license to sell, grow, process or deliver marijuana. 

"That's what people really want to see, they want to see the requests for applications," DeVeaux said. "They know that this industry is moving forward, that people are taking it seriously, but it's time to put it in context. We know it's real, but it's not real until we can touch it." 

Then, there's the issue of expanding the medical marijuana market. The CRC has yet to issue any of the 24 medical marijuana licenses that the Department of Health, which oversaw medical marijuana until this year, was supposed to issue in 2019 before a lawsuit threw a wrench in the process. 

There are currently only 20 operational dispensaries in the state, most of them owned by one of a few different parent companies.

Growing the number of dispensaries and cultivation sites will exponentially increase the availability of the product, allowing for less strain on patients who have faced $500 price tags and massive shortages throughout the history of the New Jersey Medical Marijuana Program, which was established in 2010.

And beefing up the medical marijuana opportunities for patients is vital in providing an answer to the top question posed by marijuana entrepreneurs and enthusiasts alike: 

When can we start buying and selling recreational marijuana legally?

This could happen as soon as next month — but it will require a lot of work.

The best chance New Jersey has of an up-and-running legal weed market this year is through its existing medical marijuana dispensaries, provided the towns in which they're located sign off.

That can't happen until the rules and regulations are adopted, which is supposed to happen in August.

But officials have already said that such dispensaries won't be permitted to sell to the general adult population until they can prove that the patient population is satisfied. 

"In order to launch a legal market on the backbones of our current industry, we would really need to see action across the board,” CRC Executive Director Jeff Brown said at the commission's first meeting in April.

DeVeaux and the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association have advocated for at least another round of medical marijuana licenses, in addition to the 2019 licenses sitting in limbo. 

"We should create opportunities under that program and under that process first, and that will certainly help a constituency (patients) that we know exists and continues to grow," he said.

The two issues are intricately entwined and the commission will have to sort them both out before you ever get a chance — without a medical marijuana card — to buy an ounce of legal weed in the Garden State.

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