Dianna Houenou has a vision for New Jersey’s forthcoming cannabis industry.
Houenou, a senior policy advisor and associate counsel for Governor Phil Murphy, is the incoming chair of the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission. She foresees an industry “that embodies both equity and integrity.” Further, she says, “I hope to instill in the commission a culture of doing work through an equity lens and encouraging social responsibility among business owners and operators. ”
In November, New Jersey voters overwhelmingly approved legalizing recreational use of marijuana by adults. In late February, Governor Murphy signed three bills related to the legalization and decriminalization of adult-use cannabis, officially making New Jersey the 13th state to legalize marijuana for recreational use.
In addition to setting the rules and regulations for the state’s regulated cannabis industry, the commission must create an application process for prospective businesses and publicize application requirements. The commission will have to decide which products are permitted in New Jersey and how products are tested. It will also oversee the medical marijuana program currently run by the Department of Health.
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As of now, only the 12 Alternative Treatment Centers (medical-marijuana dispensaries) approved by the New Jersey Department of Health can legally grow marijuana in the state. “All 12 operators are vertically integrated—being able to both grow and sell medical marijuana—so right now,” says Houenou, “they’re the only game in town for regulated products.” She hopes we will eventually see an industry with many more operators. Added competition should keep prices low for consumers, spur innovation and provide more jobs to New Jerseyans.
And when can consumers expect to have access to legal cannabis? “It’s going to take time,” says Houenou. “The regulatory process alone will take several months in order to allow public comment and final rules to be put in place. Even after applicants are awarded a license to operate a business, it will likely take time for them to build out their facilities, hire staff and be ready for business.”
At best, New Jersey might be able to get personal-use products on the market toward the end of this year. But Houenou cautions that shouldn’t be the expectation. The goal, she says, is to get it done right.
Getting it done right includes creating opportunities for small entrepreneurs and minority-owned businesses. “We ought to be building an industry that reflects the diversity of the state and creates the framework for equitable participation,” says Houenou. “New Jersey’s vision for the regulated cannabis industry is one that is inclusive of small businesses, people of color and women. That’s why the commission will set goals for promoting diversity and inclusion in the industry.”
There are also workplace concerns to iron out. Houenou reminds employers that they already have the ability to place restrictions on the possession or use of substances on the job, including marijuana, alcohol and prescription drugs. “Just as employees have to make informed decisions about whether or when to use alcohol, they’ll need to make informed decisions about whether or when to use cannabis,” says Houenou.