Pubdate: Tue, 17 Jul 2018
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2018 The New York Times Company
Author: Nick Corsiniti


SECAUCUS, N.J. - Tucked inside a nondescript commercial warehouse here
sits a sophisticated marijuana-growing operation. A custom filtration
system feeds a proprietary cocktail of nutrients into a hydroponic,
two-level farming system. Two pallets of crops are harvested every
day, and the 15,000 square feet will eventually yield two tons of
marijuana per year.

And it's all legal.

Opened just a few weeks ago, Harmony Dispensary is the latest site in
New Jersey to provide marijuana for medical use, a program that has
expanded greatly since Gov. Philip D. Murphy, a Democrat, was sworn
in. More than 10,000 patients have enrolled since he took office in
January, bringing the total to about 25,000. And on Monday, Mr.
Murphy's office announced it was seeking up to six new applicants for
medicinal marijuana dispensaries.

"There's been a very steady flow of patients since, literally, an hour
after we announced the opening," said Shaya Brodchandel, the chief
executive of Harmony.

But business could be even better.

Mr. Murphy campaigned heavily on a promise to legalize marijuana for
recreational use, which would make New Jersey the 10th state to do so,
and the first in the New York City region. Full recreational
legalization was projected to generate $80 million in annual tax
revenue, according to Mr. Murphy's budget proposal.

Yet more than halfway through the governor's first year, the effort
has stalled. It once looked like the plan could sail through the state
Legislature, which is controlled by Democrats and where it has support
from Stephen M. Sweeney, the Senate president. But an intraparty
battle over the state budget consumed Trenton's recent attention.

"I would hope we could do it this year," Mr. Murphy said in an
interview, stressing that it was worth a delay to make sure the bill
was comprehensive and covered all relevant issues and concerns.

Nicholas P. Scutari, a Democratic senator from northern New Jersey who 
has led the legalization effort, said a bill could still pass this 
summer. "In August: committee hearings and voting session, just for 
marijuana," he promised.

Last month, Mr. Scutari tried unsuccessfully to combine an expansion
of medical marijuana and the legalization of recreational marijuana
into a single bill. Now he is working on drafts of two separate bills.

"It's on legal pad right now," he said. "We're literally going line by
line and issue by issue. It's creating a whole industry from scratch."

Mr. Scutari's plan would grant the state's existing medical
dispensaries a license to sell recreational marijuana the first day it
became legal - after enough was set aside for patients. This would be
a boon for impatient smokers: In other states it has often taken a
year after legalization for sales to begin.

As a result, Harmony Dispensary, which is about a mile from the major
New Jersey Transit hub here, could become a premier destination for
New Yorkers looking to buy marijuana legally. (In New York State, Gov.
Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, seems to be warming to the idea of
recreational use.)

Making recreational marijuana available right away could also create a
supply and demand problem.

Mr. Brodchandel said the challenge was on his mind: "We have to
project what's going to happen in a year and a half and start today
preparing for that."

But first the law would have to pass. And support among Democrats is
faltering particularly among some legislators representing urban areas.

Senator Ronald R. Rice, the chairman of the state's legislative black
caucus and one of the most vocal opponents of legalization, fears
dispensaries would be concentrated in cities.

"In my heart, and from my experience, I know the detriment it's going
to cause long-term in urban communities in particular," he said. He
supports decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana

Mr. Murphy, however, said decriminalization was not going far

"Decriminalization for me doesn't get it done," Mr. Murphy said,
"because it leaves the business in the hands of the bad guys, it
leaves our kids exposed, and it leaves the industry unregulated and
untaxed. So while social justice and protecting our kids might be of
paramount importance, if there's a way for the state at the end of the
day to make some revenues out of this, we should accept that."

The debate has inspired a furious lobbying effort, which has overtaken
Trenton for more than a year.

"I can't walk down the hallway of anywhere without people asking about
marijuana," Mr. Scutari said.

Dozens of lobbyists from different interests, from the New Jersey
Liquor Store Alliance to the New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance
Company, have lobbied legislators in recent months, according to the
New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. And 19 different
interest groups have formed to promote recreational marijuana in
Trenton, while four have set up in opposition.

"Very often you have coalitions that kind of build off disparate types
of interests, but I think it's greater on this particular issue than
anything I've ever seen," said Jeff Brindle, the executive director of
the Election Law Enforcement Commission. "I think this is pretty unique."

Businesses are also hotly competing for a toehold, especially since
relatively few medical dispensaries have been licensed so far.

"Our view is that the market has to open up significantly," said Peter
Barsoom, the chief executive of 1906, a premium edible cannabis brand
based in Denver. "If New Jersey does it right, it has the potential to
leapfrog every other state in terms of access to quality cannabis, in
terms of innovation in the marketplace, and in terms of research."

His company recently hosted Craig J. Coughlin, the Assembly speaker,
and other state lawmakers invited to Colorado, where marijuana was
legalized in 2012, to study its marijuana market up close.

While the fate of recreational use remains unclear, Mr. Murphy's
campaign to expand access to medical marijuana has been more
successful. He signed an executive order in March significantly
expanding the list of qualifying medical conditions, and the number of
patients in the program has been rising steadily.

On Monday, the governor's office sent out a request for applications
for up to six new medical dispensaries, which would essentially double
the state's current marijuana infrastructure. The release said it was
looking for two new dispensaries each in the northern, central and
southern parts of the state.

One challenge for the administration has been convincing skeptical
doctors to prescribe the drug. Dr. Shereef Elnahal, the state health
commissioner, has been giving hourlong lectures, known as grand
rounds, at the state's teaching hospitals advocating more use.

"Part of the goal with these grand rounds is to demystify medical
marijuana and to make sure people are clear about what the research
does say," Dr. Elnahal said. He said he had embraced medical marijuana
after seeing patients he had prescribed high doses of narcotics for
pain return years later dependent on those drugs. Former patients who
had used medical marijuana avoided a similar fate, he said.

Dr. Elnahal said he believed that medical marijuana, particularly as a
substitute for opioid pain killers, was an essential part of the
future of health care.

In Secaucus, where a faint skunky new odor now mixes with the acrid
belchings of trucks on the Meadowlands Parkway, Harmony Dispensary is
looking forward to progress, however it comes.

"We just opened our retail space," said Leslie Hoffman, Harmony's
communications director. "And we're already moving toward expansion."