By Sophie Nieto-Muñoz | New Jersey Monitor
In Jersey City, searching Google for “dispensary near me” will return dozens of hits — even though the only legal recreational cannabis shops within 10 miles are in Secaucus, Bloomfield, and Elizabeth.
The results include stores with neon cannabis signs in their windows and flashy packaging for edibles that don’t typically sell legal weed, but instead peddle products containing delta-8, a psychoactive chemical found in the cannabis plant that doesn’t give the same effects as the marijuana legalized in New Jersey, which is derived from delta-9.
There’s no license required to sell delta-8, which is not evaluated or approved by federal or state agencies — a loophole convenience stores, gas stations, and smoke shops have pounced on in recent months to fill a gap in the gray cannabis market. Legal recreational stores have been slow to open, and they stock products with stubbornly high prices. Meanwhile, delta-8 gummies, vapes, and joints are cheap and easy to find.
That worries lawmakers who fear kids can get their hands on dangerous chemicals and cannabis entrepreneurs who fear the prevalence of delta-8 products confuses customers and may drive them away from legal cannabis products.
“A lot of people are going into it like, ‘Oh I can get high illegally and not worry about it,” said Michael Bajuz, who is opening Green Knight Cannabis in Franklin Township in Somerset County. “But I think people start to ingest it … the next day you wake up and have this hangover, or like a mental block or your stomach hurts, and it’s like, ‘What did I take?’”
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration warn that delta-8 products “have not been evaluated or approved” and could be potentially dangerous. The chemical contributed to more than 2,000 accidental poisonings between January 2021 and February 2022.
The farm bill passed by Congress in 2018 legalized hemp and led to the boom in delta-8, a hemp-derived cannabinoid. Delta-8 is less potent than delta-9, the chemical that produces the feeling you’re high, and it has been marketed as an alternative to weed, with less paranoia, less anxiety, and a less intense high, according to the FDA.
But without oversight, critics say, products being sold in many stores are pumped with delta-8 or manufactured carelessly using household chemicals. The FDA warns that chemicals could be used to change the color of the final product.
A Virginia Commonwealth University study that tested dozens of products bought in that state were found to have up to 10 times as much delta-8 as advertised and included synthetic cannabinoids. In another study by Chemical Research in Toxicology, researchers tested 27 delta-8 products and found none of them contained the levels advertised, and even tested positive for heavy metals including lead and mercury.
“I don’t think anybody saw these synthetic distillations happening the way they did, but once we saw that was happening and children were at risk of putting this unregulated crap into their bodies, the federal government should have taken action. It’s policy malfeasance that they didn’t,” said Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth).
O’Scanlon has introduced a bill that would require the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission — which oversees the medical and recreational marijuana market — to also regulate the sale of hemp and delta-8.
“The Legislature shouldn’t be getting into the nitty-gritty when we have the power to give it to a regulatory body that can protect consumers, particularly our kids who are buying this crap that we have no idea what it is,” he said.
Dianna Houenou, the commission’s chairwoman, declined to comment on O’Scanlon’s bill. But she said the commission is “not turning a blind eye to the realities of what’s popping up in the market.” She’s spoken to officials in other states and at the federal level about issues related to delta-8, she added.
She said consumers should visit the state’s website, which lists licensed businesses that sell recreational marijuana, to ensure they’re consuming products that are highly tested and quality controlled.
O’Scanlon wondered whether the delay in accessible cannabis in recreational stores created a “pent-up demand” that led to the boom of illegal products sold in corner stores. Critics of New Jersey’s oversight of the legal cannabis market, which turned 1 year old on Friday, have said red tape has contributed to too few dispensaries opening statewide.
“We really have not handled the rollout well. I don’t think anyone would give us high marks. But that’s all water under the bridge — I don’t care what demand is, we shouldn’t be permitting these products, packaged like they’re legitimate products that meet some sort of standards when they’re more harmful than illegal drugs purchased on a street corner from a dealer,” he said.
He said it would be “tragic” if his bill does not become law before budget season ends in June. The measure, co-sponsored by Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), was introduced in January and has yet to go before the Senate’s judiciary committee. The Assembly’s companion bill, which has bipartisan support, also hasn’t been heard in committee.
Bajuz is a disabled Army veteran who received an annual license from the state for his dispensary earlier this month. He noted a lot of work has been done in the past decade to destigmatize marijuana, and people trying to avoid high dispensary prices or stores’ dishonest marketing of delta-8 as cannabis may undo that progress.
“It’s just undermining of the legal market,” he said.
Legal dispensaries pay high taxes and social equity fees, while the local stores selling illegal weed can reap more profits while dodging such taxes and fees, he added. He’s eager to open his store this summer and educate new smokers on finding weed strains that work for them.
“That’s another negative effect on the community, where they’re taking these profits and not giving back to the community,” he said. “It’s technically hurting our bottom line, but at the same time, this is something we’re willing to give up to help the community.”