Potential Changes At NJ’s Cannabis Commission May Pose New Stumbling Block To Legalization

Nearly a month after Governor Phil Murphy signed laws legalizing cannabis for sale in New Jersey, the commission in charge of ushering in the new industry has yet to be officially created, possibly delaying when marijuana can legally be sold in the Garden State.

Sources say the reason for the hold-up is because the governor’s office is grappling with a lawsuit threat from the NAACP, which claims Murphy violated the law that created the commission by failing to appoint one commissioner who is a member of a national social justice or civil rights group. Murphy faces additional criticism that no one on the commission is a Black man, given that the governor has framed legalization as a racial justice issue and Black men have historically been disproportionately arrested and charged for marijuana-related offenses.

Murphy announced the full slate of the five-member commission on February 25th, just days after the marijuana bills were signed. But those appointments were not officially filed with the New Jersey Secretary of State, as required by law, a spokeswoman from that office said Wednesday. That’s because Murphy is considering swapping out one of those appointees, sources said. Politico New Jersey also reported Wednesday that an administration official said Murphy is considering a replacement.

Another option would be to add seats to the commission, though that would require additional legislation.

“Nothing new on the cannabis commission,” Murphy said Wednesday at a press conference.

One name circulating as a possible new appointee is R. Todd Edwards, a Black man who serves as the state NAACP’s political action chairman. Edwards has personal experience with cannabis enforcement — he said he was once arrested but not convicted for possession of a small amount of marijuana. Edwards is a funeral director, and a conviction could have threatened his license.

Black New Jerseyans have been charged for marijuana offenses at a rate nearly 3 1/2 times that of white residents, according to ACLU data, despite similar usage rates.

Edwards, a former school board member in Bridgeton, is a long-time activist for legalization who said he is a medical cannabis patient. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws had advocated that a cannabis patient or caregiver be put on the commission, since it is also charged with regulating the state’s medical program. Twenty-four new medical cannabis providers are now in line to be licensed.

Edwards confirmed he was interviewed last year for a commissioner’s seat. “I’m honored to have even been considered for the CRC, and would do anything the governor, Senate president, and Assembly speaker asked of me in regards to moving cannabis forward,” he said.

In a statement, the New Jersey NAACP chapter’s attorney, Gregg Zeff, said, “We want someone that complies with the law. Certainly Edwards would be a great fit, so might others.”

The commissioners are charged with working full-time at six-figure salaries. They will license all businesses that grow, distribute, and deliver cannabis. The state will prioritize licensing businesses that operate and hire from communities of color that have historically been adversely impacted by the war on drugs.

The controversy over the commission marks yet another delay in Murphy’s years-long push to allow for the recreational use and sale of cannabis in New Jersey. A 2019 legislative effort was scuttled, resulting in the constitutional amendment approved by voters last November. After numerous disagreements among Democrats over the penalties for underage use, the bills decriminalizing the drug and allowing its sale were passed and signed by Murphy in February, nearly two months after the constitutional amendment was scheduled to go into effect.

The drug is now legal to use, but without any stores or dispensaries licensed by a commission that’s yet to be formally appointed, there is no legal mechanism for its sale.

Murphy had said that stores selling marijuana could be open later this year. But that timeline could be pushed back, depending on when the commission finally convenes and starts meeting to approve regulations.

Murphy gets three appointments to the commission. His announced picks were Dianna Houenou, a senior policy advisor in his administration and former counsel at the state chapter of the ACLU; Maria Del Cid, a state health department official; and labor leader William Wallace.

Legislative leaders received two appointments, and they chose spouses of political allies. Senate President Stephen Sweeney picked Krista Nash, a social worker, and Assembly Speaker Tom Coughlin tapped Sam Delgado, a former Verizon executive.

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