“Funding for law enforcement under the guise of community reinvestment is not what we are looking for.”
By Dana DiFillip, New Jersey Monitor
Expungement clinics. School buses. Wheelchair ramps. Cannabis community centers. Training for rookie entrepreneurs. Grants and no-interest loans.
The New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission heard all sorts of ideas Wednesday night from 15 people during an hourlong virtual public hearing held to solicit input for how the state should spend tax revenue from the new recreational marijuana market when sales eventually begin.
The commission also heard plenty of ideas on how they should not spend the money.
“Funding for law enforcement under the guise of community reinvestment is not what we are looking for,” said Ami Kachalia, a campaign strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “We want real community reinvestment that supports the kinds of needs—things like social services and harm reduction and educational support and economic development—that truly increase access to opportunity for New Jerseyans and help communities thrive.”
When lawmakers legalized recreational cannabis a year ago—following voter approval in November 2020—they decreed 70 percent of revenue raised from the recreational market should go to “social equity investments” in “impact zones,” meaning socially and economically disadvantaged communities that have been most harmed by the failed war on drugs.
Wednesday’s meeting, intended for North Jersey residents, was the first of three virtual regional hearings scheduled to give the public a say in how marijuana proceeds—from what’s known as the Social Equity Excise Fee—could be used to better their communities. The other two, for Central and South Jersey residents, will run from 7 to 9 PM the next two Wednesdays.
Commissioner Charles Barker kicked off the first hearing with a bit of a pep talk.
“Imagine your neighborhood with more—thriving with job opportunities, business development, green spaces and open playing fields for children, improved housing,” Barker said. “The list goes on and on when it comes to the opportunities and changes that can be made for past, present, and future generations.”
He ticked off the restorative justice initiatives marijuana money has supported in other states and cities that legalized cannabis: a reparations homeownership program for Black residents in Evanston, Illinois, grants to support community groups serving harmed neighborhoods in California, and public schools in Colorado.
The ideas New Jersey residents offered up Wednesday night were equally varied.
“If you ask 10 people what is social equity, you’ll get 10 different answers,” warned Hasaan Austin, one of the first speakers.
Joe Johnson of Newark urged the commission to give or loan “significant funding” to applicants from impact zones, saying other states that failed to do so fell short in their social justice goals.
“As we’ve seen over the last decade, other states have propped industries up without thinking of equity at the forefront, only to realize four or five years later that they’ve created an industry that is monopolized by wealthy white people and anybody who’s a multi-state operator,” Johnson said. “We have enough experience from other states to not make the same mistakes here and make sure there is initial funding to really even the playing field and help local entrepreneurs get over the financial hurdle that exists.”
Christian Velasquez, who lives in Dover, said marijuana proceeds should support real estate assistance for applicants who have trouble securing a business location because of municipal restrictions. He also suggested using it to support a cannabis community center, public schools, and school buses.
“We don’t even have buses here. We have kids in elementary school walking in the snow and rain to school,” Velasquez said.
Kieshia Bowman, a community organizer from Newark, urged commissioners to earmark money for expungement clinics, free education for the community, and technical assistance programs for Black women who are entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry.
Edward “Lefty” Grimes, a disability rights activist with the group Sativa Cross, urged commissioners not to forget about the needs of the disabled community, including wheelchair access.
The commission also heard plenty of advice.
Mitchell Colbert, formerly an editor with The Leaf Online, warned commissioners not to set taxes too high, because cannabis businesses in his home state, California, “are honestly dying under the taxes. It’s hard for them to be competitive with the underground, unregulated market.”
New Jersey officials in 2021 set an unofficial target for dispensaries to be up and running by last month. The state missed that deadline though, and commission officials have been careful not to commit to an opening date, even as Gov. Phil Murphy has. In a monthly call-in radio show last week, the governor estimated sales would start this month.
Medical marijuana has been legal in New Jersey for a decade.