Cannabis consumers and legalization supporters in New Jersey came out in full force to support Phil Murphy as gubernatorial candidate. Now that Murphy's been elected, local enthusiasts for America's most popular plant are looking for a swift and definitive end to cannabis prohibition.
With its unique population, geography and state finances, New Jersey needs to innovate quickly when it comes to retail cannabis. We can create solutions that could prove essential for the entire region to realize the full benefits of correcting this massive injustice in society.
This is where Phil Murphy and Lt. Gov.-elect Sheila Oliver can put their collective experience to a critical first test. The profound shift from criminalization to normalization will take broad buy-in from law enforcement, the private business sector and municipal leadership.
Sen, Nicholas Scutari (D., Union) has introduced a bill, but it's only a loose template of ideas rather than a fully detailed plan. Scutari, a municipal prosecutor, is focused on criminal justice but he's also closely aligned with the existing multistate cannabis industry. His bill leaves out many provisions that are critical to consumers, including home cultivation.
Experience in other states shows that strong advocacy and political guidance are required to avoid the political pitfalls in the money grab of regulations.
Massachusetts and Maine have been trying for a year to implement voter-approved legalization referendums. Home cultivation, personal possession, and even non-remunerative sharing are in place and running just fine. But, commercial production and retail sales of cannabis have met serious delays.
To get the most tax revenue flowing, the legislators must entice consumers to abandon the extremely efficient underground market. Murphy and Oliver will need to act swiftly with detailed positions on a variety of key cannabis topics to keep the public on board. For everything to work the biggest buy-in has to come from consumers.
There is likely about $1.5 billion in cannabis products sold in New Jersey every year. These transactions are intimate, often among friends or acquaintances. When prices go down across the board, how will sterilized, heavily taxed, legal marijuana compete against that close-knit loyalty and locally grown flower? And how will we instantly serve all these existing consumers on Day One?
In order to realize this goal here are four things Murphy can do to keep stakeholders, and the community on board:
Decriminalize now: Support legislation that allows police departments to reconstruct their approach to cannabis consumers. New Jersey is putting more than 25,000 people into handcuffs every year for simple marijuana possession, more than for all other drugs combined. This must end and it does not need to wait.
Define everything about cannabis retail stores, home delivery and social use provisions. This means incorporating legalized marijuana as a companion to other businesses like restaurants, cafes and music events. This is a vital step and a nice balance to the overglorified and ubiquitous offerings of alcohol.
Diversify the industry. If the cynical stoners of N.J. see that state-sponsored weed is only sold by wealthy white people, the traditional cannabis market will simply thrive. A sound financial structure can help assure that residents of all backgrounds have equal access to entering the marijuana industry. The state essentially operates as a bank for small business loans and economic development already, so this may be a vehicle for better diversity.
Leaving some of the traditional market structure in place by offering quick entry to legitimacy. People who are "dealing marijuana" are essentially running small-scale wholesale-to-retail delivery services, almost like farm-to-plate. With the right technology for ID verification and a cashless payment system the folks who already serve consumers could stay in business. Those selling less than one pound of cannabis per month already would simply purchase their wholesale products, with a special permit, from a regulated source that is safe and lab-tested. And how about the existing cannabis farmers of the Garden State, who often lovingly tend dozens of plants knowing that just a few could land them in prison for a decade? In the age of booming micro-breweries and small-batch distilleries these residents deserve craft permits to share their skill and products with connoisseur consumers.
Murphy and the Democratic Party have made more than a campaign promise, they have offered the prospect of liberty itself and significant new prosperity to millions of us who live, work and play in New Jersey.
Cannabis supporters have done our part at the polls. Now, let's not screw it up in Trenton.