New Jersey is about to embarrass New York – and nobody is talking about it!

By Jordan Isenstadt | August 12, 2020

New York may be handing valuable tax dollars over to New Jersey – here’s how we can ensure the buck stops with New Yorkers.

Four years ago, I started following New York State’s nascent medical marijuana program. Three years ago, I began working in the New York cannabis industry as a strategic communications consultant. Two years ago, I became a medical marijuana patient. Each and every day, I’ve been fixated on one question: when will New York State finally legalize adult-use cannabis?

It’s become an annual ritual for those of us in the cannabis advocacy world to hold out hope that this will finally be “the year” New York State legalizes adult-use cannabis. The potential of the New York marketplace for cannabis cannot be overstated. While an adult-use rollout would take time to develop, Marijuana Business Daily estimates an adult-use market in the state could eclipse $2 billion in sales annually, depending on the regulatory environment.

Since 2014, when the state’s medical cannabis program launched, the evolution of the state regulatory environment has faced myriad starts and stops. In 2018, it appeared that the stars were aligned as Governor Andrew Cuomo expressed his support for legalization (even including it in his budget). Democrats were in control of the State Senate for the first time in a generation and a wave of legalization spread throughout the country. In 2019, once again, we appeared to be on the verge of legalization, after a disappointing lack of results the prior year. Finally, our hopes for this year were ultimately crushed by the devastation of COVID-19.

Each year, any momentum has been quashed by politics as usual, in this case an unfortunate opposition by suburban elected officials (despite overwhelming support from constituents) and a deeply uncompromising (yet, I believe, fully justified) stance from the social equity community. Despite overwhelming public support in New York, the opposing sides don’t seem willing to compromise and the Governor has not shown a desire to do this alone. Prospects for any imminent passage of adult-use legalization in New York seem dim at best, especially in the age of COVID-19.

Over this period, I’ve also watched our neighbor to the west, New Jersey, deal with its own struggles to pass adult-use cannabis legalization. Back in 2018, New Jersey’s then-new Governor Phil Murphy declared that he would pass adult-use legalization within his first 90 days. After this didn’t materialize, Murphy struggled for two years to get the Legislature to strike a deal, until finally deciding to pass it to the people for a referendum. As New Jersey voters go to the polls (or fill out their absentee ballots) in November, they will simultaneously vote on a marijuana legalization amendment. An overwhelming majority of New Jersey residents support legalization and the referendum seems likely to pass.

It’s important to note, however, that the NJ referendum only legalizes cannabis and doesn’t create any kind of system to manage the industry. The devil will be in the details for the State Legislature to figure out in 2021 and the process will take time, possibly more than a year. But the state does have a growing medical cannabis program, which could theoretically transition to a hybrid adult-use/medical model.

So where does this leave New York? Well, New Jersey is on the precipice of legalizing cannabis and we New Yorkers are at square one.

Cross border rivalries are real, and if New Yorkers knew that New Jersey was about to jump ahead in terms of the legalization timeline, it could light a fire to get this done. As we saw when Massachusetts legalized adult-use cannabis, New Yorkers flocked to the Bay State to pick up legal cannabis. Some dispensaries reported that New Yorkers accounted for 50% of their customers.

New York only shares an upstate border with Massachusetts, whereas the border with New Jersey is far more populous and far more consequential. If New Jersey gets this done before New York, we will quite literally be handing tax revenue to New Jersey. Tax revenue that New York State needs now, especially as we continue to grapple with COVID-19.

Jordan Isenstadt is a Senior Vice President at New York City based public relations agency, Marino. Jordan leads a team focused on a burgeoning portfolio of cannabis-focused brands and founded the Cannabis Media Lab, an accelerator for emerging cannabis startups. Prior to his current role, Jordan worked for the New York State Legislature, as well as two New York State Governors. To reach out directly to Jordan, email him at [email protected].