Earlier this year,New Jersey became the fourteenth state tolegalize medical marijuana -- a move that is attracting hundreds of would-be entrepreneurs who hope to receive one of six licenses to operate nonprofit medical marijuana dispensaries that the state is expected to grant next year.
Among those hoping to be the first legal operators in the state are farmers, business owners and college students. For the licensees, the state's potential market could be huge. Pot is often called the biggest cash crop in America, with estimates of its worth ranging up to $120 billion a year, according to a report on CNBC. In California, a thriving retail market exists where about $14 billion in pot is sold annually.
But Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Association for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), warns hopeful New Jersey dispensary owners to temper their expectations. Republican Gov. Chris Christie, he says, is trying to make the regulations so restrictive that the law would be unworkable.
Who Will Sell It, How Will It be Regulated?
As has been the case in many states, the road to legal marijuana sales has been a long, strange trip. When Former Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine signed the medical marijuana law in January, it was supposed to go into effect in July, with sales starting in October. But in May, Christie, who ousted Corzine, requested that enactment of the law be delayed to give the state time to work out "logistical issues." Despite protests from patient advocates, the law's implementation date was delayed by three months. Sales are not expected to begin until next year once the regulations governing them have been written.
Among the "logistical issues" that need to be sorted out is how would-be entrepreneurs go about applying for medical marijuana dispensary licenses. Thus far, no system has been put in place so prospective owners are only able to express their interest informally to NORML, and to local groups and public officials. NORML says it regularly receives emails from college students. Officials have also heard from operators of out-of-state dispensaries, farmers, warehouse owners, college students and businesses that market plant-based pharmaceuticals. Some have even secured funding from venture capitalists.
"There are serious ones and there are not so serious ones," says Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Princeton), one of the main sponsors of the medical marijuana bill.
Christie, who says he wants to avoid the problems with legal pot that other states have encountered, had his own proposal: make Rutgers University New Jersey's sole pot dispensary. While initially interested, Rutgers turned Christie down. "There is no way for Rutgers to beinvolved in this initiative without violating the federal Controlled Substances Act, which we will not do," according to a Rutgers press release.
Governor's Commitment Questioned
Pot sales will be tax-free, depriving the Garden State of revenue it could apply to its deep fiscal problems. But backers of the law point out that the paraphernalia people use to smoke the pot will be taxable, and growers will have to pay taxes on their employees' wages, so there will be some benefit to the state's economy.
New Jersey doctors groups back medical marijuana for use by terminally ill patients, but some doctors believe that the law allows too many conditions to be treated by pot -- such as glaucoma -- for which there is no scientific evidence of its effectiveness, according to Dr. Donald Cinotti, president of the Medical Society of New Jersey, who is an ophthalmologist.
Backers of medical marijuana say the science refutes those claims, and activists like St. Pierre question the governor's commitment to medical marijuana, saying that allowing it goes against Christie's DNA as a former U.S. attorney. A spokesperson for Christie couldn't be reached for comment. Donna Leusner, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services, says it's premature to discuss the issue since the regulations are still being written.
Even after the rules are written, legal pot sales in New Jersey won't happen for a while. Besides choosing locations (two each in the Northern, Central and Southern areas of the state), seeds must be acquired and plants need to be grown. But, at this point, who knows if those plants will even see the light of day?