TRENTON – At a hearing initially announced when the launch of the since-opened recreational marijuana industry had been stalled, lawmakers found plenty of other ways to critique the state’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission at a marathon meeting Thursday.

Eight panels of witnesses cycled through over the course of four and a half hour meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee that analyzed legal marijuana from a variety of angles, from regulatory delays to banking headaches to the challenges of supporting startups that better reflect the state’s population.

One top of mind issue was price, with New Jersey having among the nation’s most expensive legal marijuana – a trend that won’t abate until there are more growers, and which keeps the underground, illegal market strong even after the launch of regulated sales on April 21.

Jeff Brown, executive director of the CRC, said it costs $50 to $65 to buy an eighth of an ounce of recreational cannabis and, over the first three months of 2022, around $40 per eighth for medical consumers.

Brown said the price was lower in early 2022 than in late 2021, driven by discounts, and will be closely monitored to make sure recreational sales don’t affect that.

“Now, we’d like to see them come down more, for sure. And that’s why we continue to work to expand competition in the medical cannabis space,” Brown said.

Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, said a subset of people may benefit from discounts at the dispensary – but at the expense of others who are paying more.

“Maybe it’s just the people I’ve talked to who are in this program, but so many in this program are telling me that they are being priced out of the ability to access their medicine,” Singleton said.

New locations for medical dispensaries were announced earlier by the CRC, to businesses who had applied in 2019 but got hung up in legal battles.

Lawmakers said the CRC is also moving too slowly on issues such as allowing sales of cannabis-infused items to eat or drink, permits for clinical research and, above all, standards for workplace impairment recognition experts who can tell if someone is impaired.

Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Morris, said rules for WIREs, as they’re known, must be resolved – and fast.

“We need to have a process in which employers can follow the regulations and be able to run their businesses without the concern of making a mistake,” Bucco said.

Jeff Brown of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission says the work is ongoing and they know it’s a concern of businesses that don’t want to run afoul of state law and rules.

“I will note that in our initial regulations, we did include one that notes that essentially before the commission adopts those WIRE standards, the status quo continues and businesses can continue to drug test,” Brown said.

The meeting was originally announced when the CRC delayed action on allowing medical dispensaries to expand to recreational sales, citing an expected shortfall of products that would hurt patients enrolled in the state’s medical marijuana program.

The CRC quickly scheduled a special meeting and allowed for sales to start at 13 dispensaries owned by seven companies. One of the locations hasn’t opened yet, unable to yet receive needed local approvals, but the other 12 are running – with consistent demand but few known problems.

“There are only minor issues that came up,” said Ken Wolski, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana-New Jersey. “In fact, with some of the measures that the CRC took, we believe that patient access has actually improved since adult-use sales began.”

Wolski said dispensaries started offering medical patients online ordering and curbside pickup, home delivery and dedicated points of sale in the facilities.

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Though sales have launched, Senate President Nick Scutari, D-Union, said oversight would still be of help to examine issues such as cost.

“I’m absolutely convinced if we didn’t start this process, we might not be open today,” Scutari said. “And the state of New Jersey has enjoyed millions of dollars of sales of legal marijuana since this business has opened.”

Michael Symons is the Statehouse bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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