River Crossing Strategy Group

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Contact: Timothy White | Published On: Friday, November 6, 2020
Legal weed now approved, Murphy names picks for commission to oversee N.J. marijuana industry

Gov. Phil Murphy on Friday named two appointees to a commission that will oversee the new legal marijuana industry in New Jersey.

The chair of the commission will be Dianna Houenou, associate counsel and senior policy adviser to the governor. She previously served as policy counsel for the ACLU-NJ.

And Jeff Brown, the current assistant commissioner of the Department of Health who oversees the medical marijuana program, will serve as the executive director of the commission.

“The legalization of adult use marijuana is a matter of social justice, economic justice and racial justice," Murphy said Friday during the announcement, noting he and his family had voted in favor of the question. “It is a matter of criminal justice reform. It is a matter of common sense.”

“But now that this event has passed, the work begins to ensure that it is implemented fairly, justly and swiftly," he said.

Voters approved a referendum Tuesday to amend the state constitution and legalize marijuana. But the election night victory didn’t automatically usher in change. Lawmakers must still pass a bill to implement the question and regulate the marijuana industry, and another to decriminalize possession.

That implementing legislation come Friday, too. Sen. Nick Scutari, D-Union, who sponsored a previous bill seeking to legalize marijuana, said he planned to introduce a tweaked version as soon as Thursday. It could be up for hearings next week, and voted on by both chambers as soon as Nov. 16.

But the commission will need to be seated and ready before dispensaries can begin to open, too.

The naming of members to the commission was expected earlier this year. The 2019 Jake Honig Compassionate Use Act revamped the medical marijuana program and established the commission to oversee the program and remove it from the state Department of Health.

It required Murphy to appoint three members and gave one each to Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin.

The law set a deadline of January 2020 for the commission to create its new rules and regulations. But by February, only Sweeney had his appointment, choosing Krista Nash, a social worker from South Jersey.

When pushed on the delay, Murphy said he did not make appointments sooner because he wanted to wait for legalization and put the administration’s energy there until after the election.

“We waited a whopping three days to name the chair and the executive director," he said. “I think we’re off to the races here.”

Murphy said he would make his additional appointment “sooner than later.”

Coughlin “continues to work through his selection, but will make that selection soon,” said Kevin McArdle, communications director for the state Assembly democrats.

Houenou has worked on expungement reform while in Murphy’s office and cannabis reform with the ACLU-NJ, Murphy said. That organization has proved a leader in the fight to legalize marijuana, and focused its efforts ending the disproportionate arrests of Black people for marijuana possession.

“As happy as I am about the results of the vote, I would remiss if I didn’t remind us all that this is the first step," Houenou said Friday, noting she wants to prioritize “equity and integrity” as the commission works out the rules and begins to license operators in the new industry. 

“For cannabis industry to have integrity, it must be equitable," she said. "It must protect patient access.”

Advocates have pushed for legislation that will ease burdens for minorities, who may have less startup funding, to enter the business. In many states, “big weed” companies have come in, set up shop and made millions following legalization. This trend has occurred in New Jersey’s medical marijuana program, too.

Murphy emphasized the importance of equity in the licensing process, but did not give details, saying he did not want to jump ahead of the pending legislation.

Brown has seen the number of patients in the medical marijuana program balloon from fewer than 20,000 to nearly 100,000 during his tenure. Seven new dispensaries have opened, and the health department has enacted online ordering and begun the process to allow home delivery for patients to ease their access.

 “Our work is not even close to be doing done," he said Friday. "We need to continue to expand the market. We need to continue to add more products. And we need to continue to break down barriers for patients and their loved ones.”
Murphy did not give a timeline for when the commission will have its rules in place. He did say dispensaries could begin selling ma
rijuana to the public within the next year, but that will depend on their ability to produce enough product.

While many specifics remain unknown, the commission will likely look to the 12 other states, plus Washington, D.C., that have legalized marijuana for guidance as they continue to establish the new industry, Murphy said.

“I’m glad we’re not the first state to do this," he said. "Because we have a roadmap before us of what’s worked, what hasn’t worked.”