National News

In New Jersey, Legal Marijuana Is So Close You Can Smell It. But It Could Be Awhile.

Posted July 16, 2018 6:40 p.m. EDT
Updated July 16, 2018 6:44 p.m. EDT

SECAUCUS, N.J. — Tucked inside a nondescript commercial warehouse here sits a sophisticated marijuana-growing operation. A custom filtration system feeds a proprietary cocktail of nutrients into a hydroponic, two-level farming system. Two pallets of crops are harvested every day, and the 15,000 square feet will eventually yield 2 tons of marijuana per year.

And it is all legal.

Opened just a few weeks ago, Harmony Dispensary is the latest site in New Jersey to provide marijuana for medical use, a program that has expanded greatly since Gov. Philip Murphy, a Democrat, was sworn in. More than 10,000 patients have enrolled since he took office in January, bringing the total to about 25,000. And on Monday, Murphy’s office announced it was seeking up to six new applicants for medicinal marijuana dispensaries.

“There’s been a very steady flow of patients since, literally, an hour after we announced the opening,” said Shaya Brodchandel, chief executive of Harmony.

But business could be even better.

Murphy campaigned heavily on a promise to legalize marijuana for recreational use, which would make New Jersey the 10th state to do so, and the first in the New York City region. Full recreational legalization was projected to generate $80 million in annual tax revenue, according to Murphy’s budget proposal.

Yet more than halfway through the governor’s first year, the effort has stalled. It once looked like the plan could sail through the state Legislature, which is controlled by Democrats and where it has support from Stephen Sweeney, the Senate president. But an intraparty battle over the state budget consumed Trenton’s recent attention.

“I would hope we could do it this year,” Murphy said in an interview, stressing that it was worth a delay to make sure the bill was comprehensive and covered all relevant issues and concerns.

Nicholas Scutari, a Democratic senator from northern New Jersey who has led the legalization effort, said a bill could still pass this summer. “In August: committee hearings and voting session, just for marijuana,” he promised.

Last month, Scutari tried unsuccessfully to combine an expansion of medical marijuana and the legalization of recreational marijuana into a single bill. Now he is working on drafts of two separate bills.

“It’s on legal pad right now," he said. “We’re literally going line by line and issue by issue. It’s creating a whole industry from scratch.”

Scutari’s plan would grant the state’s existing medical dispensaries a license to sell recreational marijuana the first day it became legal — after enough was set aside for patients. This would be a boon for impatient smokers: In other states it has often taken a year after legalization for sales to begin.

As a result, Harmony Dispensary, which is about 1 mile from the major New Jersey Transit hub here, could become a premier destination for New Yorkers looking to buy marijuana legally. (In New York state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, seems to be warming to the idea of recreational use.)

Making recreational marijuana available right away could also create a supply and demand problem.

Brodchandel said the challenge was on his mind: “We have to project what’s going to happen in a year and a half and start today preparing for that.”

But first the law would have to pass. And support among Democrats is faltering particularly among some legislators representing urban areas.

Sen. Ronald Rice, the chairman of the state’s legislative black caucus and one of the most vocal opponents of legalization, fears dispensaries would be concentrated in cities.

“In my heart, and from my experience, I know the detriment it’s going to cause long-term in urban communities in particular,” he said. He supports decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana instead.

Murphy, however, said decriminalization was not going far enough.

“Decriminalization for me doesn’t get it done,” Murphy said, “because it leaves the business in the hands of the bad guys, it leaves our kids exposed, and it leaves the industry unregulated and untaxed. So while social justice and protecting our kids might be of paramount importance, if there’s a way for the state at the end of the day to make some revenues out of this, we should accept that.”

The debate has inspired a furious lobbying effort, which has overtaken Trenton for more than a year.

“I can’t walk down the hallway of anywhere without people asking about marijuana,” Scutari said.

Dozens of lobbyists from different interests, from the New Jersey Liquor Store Alliance to the New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Co., have lobbied legislators in recent months, according to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. And 19 different interest groups have formed to promote recreational marijuana in Trenton, while four have set up in opposition.

“Very often you have coalitions that kind of build off disparate types of interests, but I think it’s greater on this particular issue than anything I’ve ever seen,” said Jeff Brindle, executive director of the Election Law Enforcement Commission. “I think this is pretty unique.” Businesses are also hotly competing for a toehold, especially since relatively few medical dispensaries have been licensed so far.

“Our view is that the market has to open up significantly,” said Peter Barsoom, chief executive of 1906, a premium edible cannabis brand based in Denver. “If New Jersey does it right, it has the potential to leapfrog every other state in terms of access to quality cannabis, in terms of innovation in the marketplace, and in terms of research.”

His company recently hosted Craig Coughlin, the Assembly speaker, and other state lawmakers invited to Colorado, where marijuana was legalized in 2012, to study its marijuana market up close.

While the fate of recreational use remains unclear, Murphy’s campaign to expand access to medical marijuana has been more successful. He signed an executive order in March significantly expanding the list of qualifying medical conditions, and the number of patients in the program has been rising steadily.

Monday, the governor’s office sent out a request for applications for up to six new medical dispensaries, which would essentially double the state’s current marijuana infrastructure. The release said it was looking for two new dispensaries each in the northern, central and southern parts of the state.

One challenge for the administration has been convincing skeptical doctors to prescribe the drug. Dr. Shereef Elnahal, the state health commissioner, has been giving hourlong lectures, known as grand rounds, at the state’s teaching hospitals advocating more use.

“Part of the goal with these grand rounds is to demystify medical marijuana and to make sure people are clear about what the research does say,” Elnahal said. He said he had embraced medical marijuana after seeing patients he had prescribed high doses of narcotics for pain return years later dependent on those drugs. Former patients who had used medical marijuana avoided a similar fate, he said. Elnahal said he believed that medical marijuana, particularly as a substitute for opioid pain killers, was an essential part of the future of health care.

In Secaucus, where a faint skunky new odor now mixes with the acrid belchings of trucks on the Meadowlands Parkway, Harmony Dispensary is looking forward to progress, however it comes.

“We just opened our retail space,” said Leslie Hoffman, Harmony’s communications director. “And we’re already moving toward expansion.”