Curaleaf’s (overdue) Repudiation – by Jay Lassiter

UPDATE! By the time protestors (and yours truly) got home from Trenton, NJ’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission flip-flopped on their shocking rejection of NJ’s largest Cannabis company’s annual license. Curaleaf basically gets off with a slap on the wrist. Some are calling CRC’s reversal “extraordinary and courageous” while others criticize NJ regulators for making this up on the fly. Curalead’s reprieve is provisional and contingent on promptly striking a better deal with their workers and medical patients. Sophie Nieto-Moñoz rounds up today’s whiplash at New Jersey Monitor.

NJ cannabis regulators rejected Curaleaf’s annual application in a very public, very consequential rebuke of NJ’s largest cannabis provider. There are protests (and counter protests) in Trenton today to mark the occasion of Curaleaf’s very bad news.

Last week, NJ’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC) ejected Curaleaf’s annual application to sell recreational cannabis in New Jersey. The CRC cited Curaleaf’s contentious labor practices for the rejection as well as Curaleaf’s broken promise to prioritize medical cannabis users at their dispensaries. There was also a surprise inspection at Curaleaf that apparently went poorly.

Currently, Curaleaf must cease recreational sales on April 21. Medical cannabis sales will continue at Curaleaf while they sort out the recreational side.

We’ve chronicled Curaleaf’s shortcomings on these pages including their murky Kremlin ties and we’ve repeatedly lamented their overpriced, mediocre weed. New Jersey’s dispensaries operate like a cartel in New Jersey and that’s because regulators have created a climate where patients and stoners pay $500 for an ounce of crappy weed while politically-connected dispensary owners laugh all the way to the bank.

I didn’t see CRC’s rejection of Curaleaf coming.

But New Jersey cannabis regulators held firm and denied Curaleaf’s application as part of the annual reapproval process.

CRC’s rejection of Curaleaf sent shockwaves through the industry and NJ’s cannabis community. It was very big news so it’s disappointing that CRC didn’t have a little explainer what this decision means for local stakeholders and (especially) for NJ’s medical cannabis community.

If Curaleaf’s rejection was, in part, their failure to prioritize medical users in the wake of recreational sales as promised, then it’s unfortunate the CRC didn’t contemplate a press strategy that explained what their rejection of Curaleaf means for medical cannabis users. There was no such explainer anywhere on CRC’s website or on their socials.

After their stunning repudiation, Curaleaf emailed supporters coaxing them to Trenton today (Monday) to urge lawmakers and regulators to reconsider. This prompted a counter-protest by activists who feel let down by NJ’s version of marijuana legalization. They see an industry that caters to large out-of-state cannabis corporations at the expense of patients and small-time enterprise.

Curaleaf has long used their immense lobbying clout to keep home cultivation illegal and to squeeze out the competition at the expense of consumers.

And for the most part, the CRC let it happen.  And that’s what makes their repudiation of Curaleaf so jaw-dropping.

“We’re here to save the jobs of all 500 Curaleaf team members in New Jersey and the reputation of our company which we have worked so hard to build,” Curaleaf CEO Matt Darin told the crowd. “It’s just been an amazing thing to see all the loyalty and respect that we have gotten from our customers, our team members, and our friends throughout the industry. I’ve been inundated with calls from across the country from people supporting us seeing the absolute unfair treatment we’ve been getting from the CRC. We are working as we speak right now to ensure that we get our license renewed and we’re not gonna stop fighting until we see that take place.”

Not everyone agreed.

“I support the decision of the CRC not to renew Curaleaf’s permit,” longtime cannabis advocate Colleen Begley told InsiderNJ. “It is time for the state of New Jersey to break down the and put the industry in the hands of Mom and Pop shops.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Edward “Lefty” Grimes who’s done more to legalize weed than anyone in today’s crowd.

“Curaleaf is abusing their workers,” Mr. Grimes told InsiderNJ. “These are working class people fighting for their lives and getting shit on by billionaires. They need more pay and more unionization, I think unions could help.”

When a pro-Cureleaf protester overheard Lefty’s remarks, he couldn’t help himself.

“F*ck the unions!” he snarled, echoing their CEO’s anti-union rhetoric.

When this particular charmless agitator got a little pushback he resorted to a familiar tact.

“What the f*ck have you done to legalize weed anyway?” He demanded to know. Reminding this angry protester that my activism literally created the cannabis industry felt unnecessary at that point.

Kick the Can

Trenton lawmakers could fix much of what ails NJ’s cannabis industry but their track record of kicking the can suggests they won’t.

It’s ironic that Senator Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth) wants to disband the CRC especially since the lawmaking body he’s a part of has repeatedly declined efforts to improve things for cannabis consumers.

According to one insider, in addition to legalizing home-grow for medical users, Trenton lawmakers could legislate a sort of “shot clock” on the zoning and land use process that disproportionally favors large corporations that have the resources to ride out the clock.

“New Jersey’s original sin was a failure to build in the same timing requirements as the municipal land use law (MLUL.)” one Trenton insider said. “A town can financially bleed a cannabis applicant by just taking their sweet time to review an applicant’s information, arbitrarily starting and moving along that process as the local government sees fit. This is particularly true of towns that came up with local scoring measures and review boards. People often forget the history of the MLUL; that the legislature saw towns playing games with businesses on land use and that it needed a process to avoid arbitrariness and corruption. Why the legislature thought cannabis would be different is beyond my comprehension.”

I welcome Mr. Gopal to introduce a bill about that. (Spoiler alert: he won’t.)

Bill Caruso, an attorney for Archer Law who topped InsiderNJ‘s most recent Cannabis Power List is defending the CRC for now.

“We are far ahead of our neighbors in New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware. I don’t see any reason why we would want to destroy that progress,” Caruso told NJ.com, calling Mr. Gopal’s bill “a huge mistake and a giant step backwards.”

Leo Bridewater, #3 on InsiderNJ‘s Cannabis Power List is not impressed calling Mr. Gopal’s ban to disband the CRC “irresponsible” or worse.

“Somebody he knows or somebody he’s close to didn’t get whatever it is they want,” Mr. Bridgewater added.

It’s easy to understand the lack of goodwill towards lawmakers who stood by while NJ’s cannabis industry morphed into a cartel in a state where growing a single pot plant is still a felony. But other than a dramatic decline in pot arrests, ending cannabis prohibition was not the boon for medical patients as promised. Likewise there’s no place for you in New Jersey’ cannabis industry.

Sure, they’ll have you as a customer. And they might even hire you as the help and pay (peanuts) with no job security. But unless you’re 1) loaded 2) politically well-connected and 3) have a Rolodex filled with lobbyists, municipal variance attorneys, and maybe a Russian oligarch or two, there’s not much room for you in NJ’s gazillion-dollar cannabis industry.

Jay Lassiter was a lobbyist for NJ’s medical cannabis law. He’s been HIV+ over 30 years and used cannabis the entire time, mostly as a criminal. 

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