(DISCLAIMER: This post is about the legal nonsense at work. If you’re looking for a big bong party, keep on lookin’! And then send me an invite. 😉
SECOND DISCLAIMER: I’m not a lawyer. However, I am a little more familiar with the law than the average person. (And, no, I don’t mean I’ve been arrested a lot. 😋)
For several years, I wrote web content for lawyers and law firms all across the U.S. I like to say I “translated ‘legal’ into ‘English.’”
So, for work, I’d read enough of the law to explain what to expect in a consultation. Because, if you’re looking for a lawyer, you don’t want to waste time. They charge by the hour!
All that to say – I have experience wading through legalese and making it understandable.)
My home state of New Jersey voted on November 3rd, 2021 to make it legal for adults (21+) to use marijuana. The ballot asked all voters if we should make cannabis a legal product, like alcohol.
Governor Phil Murphy, then signed three Bills to that effect on February 22, 2021.
And… not much has changed since then. At least, not to most NJ pot users.
We’re happy that the Governor decriminalized adults using marijuana immediately. We know the cops have better stuff to do than hassle cannabis users.
But the complaints are in the air. Staff at medical dispensaries say they have to turn away recreational customers daily.
People over 21 still can’t walk into the store and buy cannabis without a prescription. (NOTE: the medical program has many flaws, including ridiculous costs. However, that’s not this post’s focus.)
So… a lot of locals are asking… what’s up with that?!
I’ll be honest – I’m not surprised by the long delay in NJ cannabis legalization. In fact, back between the vote and the Bills’ signing, I may have predicted that it would take forever
We changed the state’s Constitution, sure. But we forget: The ban on marijuana was – and is – woven into many different laws. Those laws are both state and federal.
The state has taken the first steps towards untangling the law – tweezing out the parts that penalize pot’s existence.
The federal… well, I’ll talk more about them later.
NJ Marijuana Law Now
The (very) long and (not) short of the law is: It tries to make rules for as many situations as possible. Supposedly learned people sit and debate what might happen if they ban or allow an activity. Then, they write it all down.
Needless to say, it takes a long time.
The 2020-2021 marijuana Bills the NJ legislature has online show we’re inching toward progress:
- Treating marijuana like alcohol – They outline how to handle minors in possession, how it will free up resources in the criminal justice system, and preventing illegal enterprises.
- Creating the Cannabis Regulatory Commission – The Bills define which department the new Commission falls under, how it absorbs duties of the medical marijuana program, the number of members, how they’re appointed, members’ roles, how they’ll reach decisions, what powers/duties/responsibilities they have, how they’re removed, how and who they need to hire, and the Committee’s right to sue and be sued. (And, trust me – that’s a peek at what the Bills define and spell out. In painful detail.)
- Outlining the Cannabis Regulatory Commission’s review process – This requires the Commission contract with a public research university and spells out how long it has to hire someone. In the text, there’s a link to other Bills using the same definition of “public research university” (showing readers just how interlocked these laws are). It also states what the university reviews, like how companies are organized, regulation and enforcement activities, effective policies, how/if it would work better under the Department of Health or another way.
- Detailing the Commission’s power to regulate cannabis businesses – They’ll be making rules for how residents can purchase, sell, grow, produce, transport, and deliver marijuana to consumers (citing previous laws that might shape them). The group’s also responsible for licenses – deciding what the licenses cover, and rules for transferring, suspending, and revoking them.
- Explaining what the Commission has the power to do – These lay out what the Commission can do, like issuing subpoenas, putting people under oath, taking depositions, requesting documents from people (payroll, accounts, licenses), requiring fees for applications/licenses/renewals, making rules about how businesses can advertise marijuana, and how it can be used in scientific/pharmaceutical/industrial businesses. That’s just some of the areas the Commission has to investigate and regulate.
- Decriminalizing marijuana and removing its ban from all state laws – Possibly the most important change. It effectively dismisses pending criminal cases, and removes penalties across all NJ’s laws.
The 166-page Bill, A21 AcaAca (2R), goes into such detail that I’m shocked it didn’t assign the Commissioner’s aides’ parking spots. We voted to create this Cannabis Regulatory Commission, and the Bills say exactly how we’re going to do it.
Now, the Commission has to follow those rules just to make more rules for recreational pot commerce. And it has to do it for all aspects of the business.
Business owners then have to apply for licenses (after the Commission decides how to give them out). Anyone who has applied to the state for a license knows how that usually goes. I’m sure we’ll see more delays.
But, there’s just one problem I foresee holding back NJ’s recreational pot sales. The Legislature has obviously taken note of it (finally).
It’s the cause of – and solution to – all of life’s problems. (Sorry, Homer Simpson, you were wrong. It’s not alcohol.)
Yup. It’s money.
The Federal Government’s Impact on State-By-State Legalized Cannabis
In many ways, the fed has relaxed its interference on the states’ rights to legalize marijuana. We don’t hear about the Feds raiding recreational pot stores, at any rate.
But, it still has a stranglehold on the banks.
My Dad always said to look for “FDIC” in a bank’s window. He didn’t tell me what it meant, though. I learned it means the bank protects our money with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
After the Great Depression, the government formed the FDIC. It’s an independent agency tasked with making sure the nation doesn’t go broke again.
One way the FDIC works is by providing banks with insurance policies for our deposits. If the bank were to “fail,” or claim they’re broke, our money is safe. “Since FDIC insurance began in 1934, no depositor has lost a single penny of insured funds due to bank failure.”
Independent agency or not, the federal government’s laws – with severe penalties for all things marijuana – still control the FDIC’s policies. As such, FDIC-insured banks would be breaking federal law if they protected money earned by selling pot.
Expert tax accountants may be able to find a work-around, if you can afford their help. But, most banks flat-out refuse to work with legal weed companies.
And that causes a lot of problems:
- Potential sellers/growers/cannabis-connected businesses can’t get loans. Many have to turn to friends and family for money. Not only that, but they often have to pay cash. For everything. Up front. People want to be a part of the marijuana boom, but can’t get the up-front cash in-hand. This continues hurting people of color who were already hit hard by previous marijuana arrests. Without access to lots of fast cash, they can’t get in on the legal sales.
- Cannabis businesses will have issues accepting credit and debit cards. Because these cards are tied to the federal government, legal shops can’t receive money from them. I know some debit card companies make exceptions for medical marijuana purchases. I just don’t know if that extends to recreational sales. The companies might ALSO have to re-edit their procedures.
- Business owners will deal mostly in cash as a result. This opens them up to theft, robbery, and mishandling at every turn. Owners will need increased security, at an increased cost. Medical dispensaries hire off-duty police or private security and install high-grade camera systems, as an example. New businesses also need to find professionals familiar with the messed-up tax laws. The federal government wants to know where each dollar goes, even as it claims to be overseeing an illegal transaction.
- Businesses won’t have anywhere to put that cash. When NJ residents earn a profit from legal weed, there are very few places that money can go. The banks can’t insure it, so it can’t go into bank accounts. The owners can’t take the money and buy another business, creating an investment from the “illegal proceeds.” The money that could help New Jersey is too often LITERALLY stuffed under someone’s mattress. Let’s face it – legal cannabis business will earn a lot of money. If nothing changes, business owners will be building entire houses out of dollar bills because they can’t make legal purchases or deposit them.
- Owners will live in constant fear of audits. The state or federal government could call them in any day. Every receipt and invoice must be available at a moment’s notice. Audits are stressful for people and businesses that earn money “legally.” It seems cannabis producers face aggressive and adversarial examinations by officials. Lawyers are already specializing in this area of practice.
The federal government is responsible for every American dollar. It has complete authority over the money Americans spend, because the Federal Reserve issues the bills and keeps the financial system stable (usually).
As you’re reading this, the federal government has just approved a Bill saying banks can do business with legal cannabis companies. It just passed the House of Representatives (here’s a tracker!)
Now… we know how slow New Jersey was to change its cannabis law(s). And you KNOW that molasses. in January, in a blizzard, on the planet Hoth moves faster than the federal government changing laws.
But, until the banks can do legal business with legal pot companies, we (OK I) the consumers will see slow progress.
You’d think the fed would have addressed this problem by now. The money that states have raked in by legalizing marijuana must be appealing to the government.
So – what is the state of NJ’s recreational pot situation? Well, I see some speed bumps on the road to a booming cannabis economy.
Some, at the state level, just need editing now that we changed the law. But the federal government’s grip on every penny is what’s holding us back.
Unfortunately, I think NJ may see more delays because the federal branch is (finally) working to put pot-produced profits into circulation. I worry the Cannabis Regulatory Commission will postpone its reports until banks have clear guidelines from the government.
Phil Murphy is also up for re-election in November. Legalization probably isn’t a priority for him right now.
So, I predict a long, cold winter for fans of the whacky weed. Which sucks, because it would make it easier to deal with our country rejecting billions of dollars. Or at least it would be easier to ignore it.
Progress is slow, and it’s frustrating. But, in the words of Benjamin Franklin “Energy and persistence conquer all things.” Be persistent.