New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy is expected to sign two bills before New Year’s Day that will give birth to a new recreational marijuana industry in the Garden State and decriminalize the possession of up to six ounces of cannabis.

The bills, which received strong bipartisan support in the state Assembly and Senate, will initially create 37 licenses for firms that can both grow weed and sell it.

Somehow, those licensees will have to produce enough marijuana to satisfy existing medical marijuana patients and an adult-use marketplace that some industry analysts believe could grow to be worth $2 billion annually.

Bill Caruso, 46, is a lawyer and lobbyist who heads the cannabis practice at Archer Law of Haddonfield. Caruso has been involved with the legalization effort in the Garden State since the beginning of his law career.

The Inquirer spoke with Caruso about how he sees the industry evolving in the New Year, what opportunities will be available for aspiring cannabis entrepreneurs, and what employers should know about marijuana’s potential impact on the workplace.

Much remains unknown. Such basic questions as the criteria for giving out licenses or the size of licensing fees, if there are any, are unresolved.

Let’s start with the first cannabis question on everyone’s mind: How soon will people be able to buy legal recreational marijuana in New Jersey?

I suspect this time next year will be the earliest you’ll be able to walk in and buy recreational cannabis at a retailer or order online for home delivery in New Jersey.

Bill Caruso is a lawyer, lobbyist, and head of the cannabis practice at Archer Law.
Bill Caruso
Bill Caruso is a lawyer, lobbyist, and head of the cannabis practice at Archer Law.
Can small businesses and mom-and-pops without previous experience join in the green rush? The law calls for 37 initial licensees.

We hope it will be a lot more than 37 licenses. The “37″ really contemplates just the grow side of the operation — the mostly large, well-capitalized groups that have the expertise and the wherewithal to set up these large marijuana producers.

But that’s not only what New Jersey regulatory structure contemplates. Eventually, you’ll see more focus on the development of micro-licenses — that’s outside the 37 cap — and one exciting point we’ll see is the development of a craft cannabis economy.

Look at what’s gone on in the craft brew industry. These craft breweries are exploding in popularity right now.

So you see niches for small business?

I see multiple opportunities. There’s always going to be big dogs. But the struggle for New Jersey was carving out space for the little guy. There’s a focus on that in this legislation.

What opportunities do you see?

Anything from a manufacturing facility creating edibles, or metered-dose inhalers, or transdermal patches in the medicals realm. You may see small bakeshops or candy shops developing new forms of edibles for either the adult-use or the medical space.

When might these micro-licenses be available?

The answer is: not so soon.

We have 12 current licensed operators producing right now in New Jersey. To ramp up, the goal will be to transition medical facilities into the adult-use space, if that’s what they choose to do. The test will come with whether they can meet current patient demand. Right now they can’t.

The race is to get enough patient supply and a diversity of product to build the medical market. There’s a significant push to build out cultivation among the 12 operators. They’re the only game in town right now.

Will customers be restricted to people from New Jersey, or will consumers from out-of-state be able to purchase?

For adult-use, you’ll only have to be 21 regardless of whether you’re a resident of New Jersey or not. Some of the revenue projections are based on sales to transients.

New York and Pennsylvania are still a long way off from legalization, so I expect New Jersey will be the adult-use island in a sea of prohibitionist states.

 
 
What is in the law to protect employers who might have employees who are stoned on the job?

They can still drug-test. The problem we have is that marijuana is still an [illegal] Schedule 1 drug under federal law, grouped with heroin. If you have federal funding or a federal license of any sort, you’re still going to be subject to that scrutiny. What I’ve said is that there will be a need for some employment lawyers to evaluate liability.

Most employers want to attract the best and brightest that they can and don’t want to meddle in their workers’ private lives if they don’t have to. They just want to make sure their workplace is safe. Moreover, they want to limit their expenses.

Wasting money on testing that’s not needed probably is not in the cards. Someone with a commercial driver’s license, however, will be tested. If I show up to work and I’m addled, you can rest assured there will be some HR efforts to test. And that could just as easily happen if I’m drinking martinis at lunch, or taking a weird painkiller.

What’s going on with home grow? If I’m living in Vineland, can I cultivate 10 cannabis plants in my backyard?

No. They [legislators] weren’t ready for that. Where we missed the mark in this state was on the decriminalizing growing for patients. There’s no reason that shouldn’t have been included. But I’m happy to hear there’s a new focus on the issue. Until that changes, it doesn’t matter if you’re running a meth lab or growing six plants — you’ll get the same felony charge. I sense we’ll eventually get to that.