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Cannabis Regulatory Commission will be hugely powerful

Governor picks three commissioners and executive director; Senate President and Assembly Speaker each get one seat

By David Wildstein, March 12 2019 5:59 pm

The Cannabis Regulatory Commission will likely be one of the power centers of state government following a deal between Gov. Phil Murphy and legislative leaders to legalize marijuana in New Jersey.

The commission will issue licenses and regulate the industry in a manner akin to the Casino Control Commission in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  The draft version of the bill gives them investigatory authority in the prosecution of violations.

The current agreement calls for a five-member full-time commission.  Murphy will get three seats, including the chairmanship, with Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin each getting one.

Serving on the commission will carry a two-year ban on joining the cannabis industry after they leave office, but there is no apparent waiting period for an elected official or state employee to jump to the regulatory side.

The hidden jewel in bill is the post of executive director of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission.   Murphy will appoint the executive director with the advice and consent of the Senate and serves at the pleasure of the governor – until the governor leaves office and a successor is nominated and confirmed.  The governor sets the salary for that post, although it is capped at $125,000.

This is one of two executive director posts in the state that requires Senate confirmation; right now, only the Lottery Commission executive director must face the State Senate.  Others, like New Jersey Transit, the Turnpike Authority and other independent transportation and utility authorities, do not go through the Senate.

It’s possible – perhaps even likely — that the executive director will turn out to be more powerful than the commissioners.  This will be the governor’s eyes and ears inside the commission that will be granting licenses.

Employees of the commission appear to be reporting to the executive director.  All employees – except clerical ones – will be unclassified and confidential.  That means they won’t be unionized; some may become political appointees.

The governor will have the right to remove any member of the commission “for cause” after a public hearing.

Commissioners will serve five-year terms, although the first round of appointments will include a four-year term and a three-year term so that the seats are staggered.   The governor’s initial picks will not be subject to Senate confirmation.  After those first five commissioners leave office, future nominees will face the New Jersey Senate – and senatorial courtesy.

The bill proposes a salary not to exceed $141,000 for the chair and no more than $125,000 for the other four commissioners.  The commission will have a vice chair elected annually.

The proposed legislation requires all five commissioners to have some qualification for the post, although the requirements are broad: “legal, policy, or criminal justice issues, corporate or industry management, finance, securities, or production or distribution, medicine or pharmacology, or public health, mental health, or substance use disorders.”

At least one member of the commission would be a “state representative of a national organization or State branch of such an organization with a stated mission of studying, advocating, or adjudicating against forms of social injustice or inequality.”

The current bill includes no geographic requirements for commissioners, and no requirement to include members of both political parties.  Commissioners may not hold any other employment, although the proposed legislation does not include a specific ban on partisan activities.

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