New Jersey launched commercial adult-use cannabis sales April 21, 534 days after the state’s voters passed a legalization initiative in the November 2020 election.

Now that this long-awaited market is up and running, the state’s 13 operational adult-use dispensaries, which are owned by seven of the industry’s largest companies—Acreage Holdings, Ascend Wellness, Columbia Care, Curaleaf, Green Thumb Industries, TerrAscend and Verano—have much to consider as they transition from medical-only sales.

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HR and employment issues should not be at the bottom of this list of considerations, says Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr Partner Ruth Rauls.

“It’s something to be top of mind for companies and businesses that are setting up,” she tells Cannabis Business Times. “That can’t be the bottom of the list or one of the things that you’re going to deal with later. There are a lot of laws in New Jersey for employees that employers need to know about, and so it’s better to educate themselves now and be aware of what those obligations are going into it as opposed to dealing with it later.”

Social equity has been an important component of New Jersey’s adult-use cannabis program, with the Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC) taking what Rauls calls a multi-pronged approach to equity in the marketplace, from the business licensing process to hiring practices.

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The seven medical cannabis operators approved to serve the adult-use market were required to submit social equity plans, including hiring a workforce that has individuals who were previously convicted of cannabis-related offenses or those who reside in economically disadvantaged areas.

“They’ve laid out very specific action items for them in terms of what they want them to do,” Rauls says. “Part of that is training and giving technical assistance to folks so they can participate and hiring a diverse workforce with an emphasis on hiring from impact zones and economically disadvantaged areas.”

Several of New Jersey’s community colleges offer training programs for those looking for work in the cannabis industry, Rauls adds, which will help create a workforce for the state’s adult-use cannabis businesses.

“I’m sure [the cannabis operators] are working toward where they’re advertising those positions, working within community partnerships [and] working with the community that they’re in to make sure that they’re reaching applicants that are diverse, that may live in impact zones or economically disadvantaged areas,” she says.

Outside of the social equity requirements, Rauls says New Jersey’s adult-use cannabis businesses are just like any other employer—their hiring and employment practices must adhere to the same rules that apply to employers in any other industry.

“In terms of general hiring, they need to follow the same rules that everybody else follows, making sure that they’re treating everybody the same, their applications are compliant with the law, that they’re not doing any kind of background checks or anything like that that they’re not permitted to do,” she says.

And, as in other industries, cannabis businesses are up against a tight labor market that could translate to difficulties in attracting and retaining employees, Rauls says.

However, she adds, as cannabis continues to gain mainstream acceptance, companies in the industry might be able to attract talent more easily than in the past.

“You may have individuals that may have never considered working for a cannabis company because they never thought that was in the cards for them, but now that you see the industry growing and really gaining a foothold in the economy throughout the states, and there’s this movement toward descheduling … on the federal side, I think it does provide the industry with the opportunity to attract talent in a way that it may not have been able to attract before,” Rauls says. “They may have a larger pool of candidates to pull from. … When you look at these higher-level positions, people may not be necessarily willing to move to a cannabis company before, but I think they might be now.”

Ultimately, Rauls says the goal of cannabis companies in New Jersey and beyond should be to create safe, productive workplaces for their employees.

“It’s the right thing to do, it’s the legal thing to do, and it’s good for business,” she says. “We need to make sure we don’t lose sight of that while we’re getting across the finish line for everything else. It’s really important.”