If the New Jersey Cannabis Symposium is any indication, New Jersey’s fledgling marijuana industry is going to be big.
What started as a few hundred people in a small meeting space at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center quickly grew into an estimated crowd of more than 800, piled into the same theater where native son Frankie Valli will sing next month.
Weed in New Jersey is that big of a deal.
“We’re going to build an industry together, here in New Jersey,” said Longview Strategic founder Ellie Siegel, a cannabis consultant. An audible “woo” from someone in the back of the theater cut through the applause, echoing through the theater.
“I was waiting for this moment and wasn’t sure when it would come,” Siegel said. “But I’m as excited and enthusiastic as you are.”
Gov. Phil Murphy has made marijuana legalization a priority of his administration, signing an executive order this week to expand the state’s medical marijuana industry. Though neither legalization bill in the Legislature has even sniffed a hearing, experts have predicted a bill to be passed and signed into law by June 30.
The New Jersey Cannabis Symposium was marketed toward anyone looking to get in the cannabis business, from retail store owners and growers to developers, investors and folks working on the fringes of the industry.
Here are five takeaways from the sellout event in Newark:
1. May the odds be ever in your favor
The current legalization bills only set a minimum for the number of retail marijuana licenses issued in New Jersey: One per county, with room to grow based on population and demand.
Revised legislation is expected to be introduced by Feb. 1, said Brian Staffa, partner with cannabis industry consultant the BSC Group. And it’s likely to come with a cap of 80 retail licenses and 15 cultivation licenses throughout the state.
The number of licenses are likely to increase during continued bill revisions and negotiations, Staffa said.
“I don’t expect that to be enough,” Staffa said, as audible grumbling began among the audience. “But it’s a place to start the conversation.”
But some potential retail applicants are not worried: “I guess (it means) competition and maybe increased professionalism,” said Joseph Shapiro, a 37-year-old Ocean Grove attorney trying to get a head start on a retail license.
2. If you’re looking to get in the weed business, you’re running behind schedule.
It seems easy, right? Step one: Apply for a license. Step two: Receive license. Step three: Open for business.
“The time is now. If you’re starting today or tomorrow, you need to ramp up,” said Josh Bauchner, an attorney with Ansell Grimm & Aaron’s cannabis practice. “There’s a tremendous amount of work to be done before we get to the actual filing of the licenses – getting your team together, getting your capital, finding your space, figuring out your banking.”
Clifton resident Scott Landsperger is nearly a year into his own planning: The swimming pool company owner already done his due diligence, has a team together and is ready to apply for a retail license on day No. 1.
“It’s an industry that it doesn’t matter what your store looks like, people are going to find you and come to you. It’s an opportunity that doesn’t come along very often,” Landsperger said.
The simple process of finding the right people is more vital than it seems, Bauchner said. As part of the application process, New Jersey’s Division of Marijuana Enforcement – the pot regulation arm of the Attorney General’s office, established as part of the legalization bills – will run background checks on everyone involved in a potential business.
In a business centered around a still-illegal drug, criminal background checks are a must, Bauchner said. In New Jersey, they will likely ask if an applicant has ever been arrested – not just convicted – of a crime.
“They’re going to want your tax returns, your financials from your different businesses, your background,” Bauchner said. “They’re going to want to make sure you have a cooperative landlord and that landlord has a cooperative lender.”
Business owners should do the same: “Google the people you’re going to engage with, the people you’re going to join forces with,” said Siegel, the cannabis consultant. “Don’t just stop at page one, two or three. Go to page eight.”
3. Marijuana still has an image problem
David Wegner, a 36-year-old Brooklyn attorney, came to the symposium looking for investment opportunities, particularly with cultivators.
New York is about a year behind New Jersey in the path to legalization, Wegner said. And in that scenario, it’s not unlikely that New Yorkers would flock across the Hudson River to buy legal cannabis in the Garden State.
But first? The cannabis industry needs to convince the rest of New Jersey that legal marijuana isn’t a bad thing.
“People who see the downside of marijuana are less than people who see the downside of alcohol,” Wegner said. “It’s going to be a really big industry, and I want to be a part of it.”
Legal marijuana is still a foreign concept to most of New Jersey. And no bill will ever pass — or be signed into law — until that changes, said Scott Rudder, president of the New Jersey Cannabusiness Association.
“We’re still getting comfortable with this. We’ve been talking about this for years,” Rudder said, referring to the cannabis community. “In New Jersey, at the legislative level, it hasn’t been talked about recreationally ever. It’s getting people comfortable with the science and the statistics.”
But the real battle will come during public comment periods: Rudder expects opponents of legalization to spend freely to try and prevent it, particularly lobbyists and groups funded by pharmaceutical giants.
“The people that have the most to lose have the most to gain by stopping it,” Rudder said.
4. Let the feds work marijuana out for themselves.
“The medical cannabis industry remains protected under federal law,” said Saphira Galoob, a cannabis lobbyist.
Period. End of sentence.
There is language in the federal budget that prevents the Justice Department from spending money against states trying to get medical marijuana programs off the ground, she said.
Even though Attorney General Jeff Sessions earlier this month rescinded an Obama Administration policy that relaxed enforcement of marijuana laws, the federal government “isn’t that stupid,” said Bauchner, the cannabis attorney.
“The federal government is looking out west and the incredible amount of revenue that’s being generated,” he added. “What the lord giveth in the form of a beautiful plant, the federal government is not going to taketh away.”
5. Pick your location carefully.
In the lead-up to a potential legalization of marijuana, one thing has become abundantly clear: Weed is not for everyone.
A handful of New Jersey towns — especially along the Jersey Shore — have passed or started discussing zoning changes that would outlaw marijuana sales, be they medical or recreational.
“If they don’t want you there, it’s going to be an uphill battle the whole way,” said Siegel, the cannabis consultant.
A potential cannabis business owner should avoid those towns completely. And in a town where the fate of marijuana is unknown, they shouldn’t sign any sort of land purchase or rental agreement unless they’re willing to open some other business.
“We’re all talking about the towns and the powers that be and the government. If you’re trying to be a tenant, where the pushback is going to be is from the landlord,” said Marc Perel, co-founder of ARCTRUST Properties, a real estate investment trust.
But there’s always room for discussion, Siegel said.
“If you have community ties and a way to make those arguments and those people hear you, you can really get some traction and make some headway,” she said.