Lawmakers on Thursday questioned the top staffer of New Jersey's Cannabis Regulatory Commission about pricing, workplace impairment tests and more during a highly-anticipated legislative hearing into the state's nascent recreational market.
Jeff Brown, the CRC's executive director, testified for nearly two hours before the Senate Judiciary Committee and Senate President Nick Scutari — the chief architect of legal cannabis efforts in the state. While Brown was joined by other top members of his staff, CRC commissioners were absent from the hearing. Chair Dianna Houenou had planned to attend but was “under the weather,” Brown said.
Lawmakers — both Democrats and Republicans — repeatedly asked Brown about regulations for setting up Workplace Impairment Recognition Experts, or WIREs, who are tasked with physically examining whether someone is high on cannabis in the workplace. New Jersey’s cannabis legalization law bars employers from taking disciplinary action against workers based solely on a positive test since the drug can be detected weeks after initial use. WIREs are required to confirm if an employee is high at the moment.
The CRC, which is tasked with creating regulations for the experts, has not done so yet.
“I would only ask you that the word expeditious come across in capital letters and you get this thing done like ASAP,” Sen. Fred Madden (D-Gloucester) said. “Get something out to us so that we can start providing the people some direction. It is extremely, extremely critical.”
Brown, who was asked multiple times about a timeline for WIREs, did not say when regulations would be established. The CRC, he said, was “actively working on” the matter, speaking with business stakeholders and looking at how law enforcement has undergone its cannabis sobriety tests with Drug Recognition Experts, who would theoretically have similar methods of checking for cannabis intoxication.
Left unmentioned by both lawmakers and Brown is the fact that a case is pending before the state Supreme Court involving the validity of DREs. The outcome of that case could hold sway over how WIRE regulations are formed. One member of the CRC recently said the commission is awaiting a decision on that case.
“While I don't have a specific timeline on the new regs, that's not to say that there's not work happening,” Brown told lawmakers on Thursday. “We will certainly keep the committee abreast of timelines and when things are up for adoption.”
Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) questioned Brown on affordability within the medical cannabis market, which has been a top concern among lawmakers, consumer advocates and the CRC. Prices for medical cannabis, Brown said, were consistent with neighboring states; the most recent data from the fourth quarter of 2021 had medical cannabis priced at an average of $41 for an eighth of an ounce.
Asked by Singleton about the best way to lower cannabis prices, Brown agreed that adding more licensed operators to the market would help drive competition to reduce prices. Singleton said the CRC should be “speeding that process up” to get more licenses approved.
While Brown said that prices were lower right now for medical patients than before 2019, Singleton stressed that affordability remained an issue for patients.
“Many in [the medical cannabis program] are telling me that they are being priced out of their ability to access their medicine because the pricing isn't doing what you're saying it's doing,” Singleton said. “Maybe it's the location of where they're going ... But I'd love to have a deeper understanding of that because anecdotally what I'm hearing is not consistent with what you just said.”
Singleton also asked whether Brown had any data on the impact of allowing homegrown cannabis — which would require legislative action. “I haven't seen any data on it,” Brown said.
Scutari had called for hearings over “delays” into starting the recreational cannabis market in late March, shortly after the CRC declined to authorize adult-use sales. Since then, recreational sales have launched at 12 dispensaries across the state. Scutari has said he hoped the hearings would be informational to the Legislature.
Brown's appearance before the committee on Thursday accounted for only a part of the overall hearings. The committee also took several hours of testimony from patient advocates, academics, industry players such as Green Thumb Industries, which operates an alternative treatment center in the state, business groups and lobbyists.
Daniel O'Connor contributed to this report.