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Cannabis licensing program sees the potential for veterans entering the industry

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Atlantic Cape Community College has announced a partnership with the cannabis company Insa on a program aimed at getting local students jobs in the newly legal cannabis industry.

With the continued legalization of marijuana across the country, many people are being met with the especially daunting financial burden that comes with starting a business within the industry.

There are organizations trying to change that.

Last month, Pangea Health announced a donation of $100,000 in scholarships to the Cognitive Harmony Technologies Accelerator, a program that provides training and education to those looking to apply for cannabis licenses.

The program, a joint venture between members of the cannabis business and Harvest 360 Technologies, has helped applicants acquire licenses in a number of states. In New Jersey, the scholarship money was awarded to NJ.com, New Jersey Cannabis Insider and the state Veterans Chamber of Commerce, who will then find suitable candidates for the program.

According to CHT Managing Partner David Serrano, the Veterans Chamber of Congress should have no problem finding them.

“Because of my position of human resources in the military, I now know that in the cannabis industry, there is a very high demand for people who have been in roles where they were accountable to highly regulated process,” Serrano said. “Even the lowest-ranking person in the military has more accountability and responsibility than some CEOs in this industry.”

Serrano served as a personnel specialist in the Navy from 2005-11 and managed the careers of more than 5,000 service members. A Hudson County native, he got into the cannabis industry after his service because he saw firsthand how the “War on Drugs” affected his community and wanted to help people get over the barrier of entry that comes from the licensing process.

That barrier is mostly financial, Serrano said. For an application, subject matter experts in law, security and cultivation are needed to provide information on what goes into running a cannabis business. The total cost just to apply can run between $85,000 and $1 million.

“One time, we got paid over $300,000 from a major operator to do one application,” he said. “It was evident upon all of us that people from my community would never be able to play if that’s what the competition’s looking like.”

Once they came to that realization, Harvest 360 got to work developing a more affordable way to help members of the community put together their own high-quality applications. Those who enroll in the accelerator program are given study guides and application templates and do regular Q&A sessions with experts. Once their application is complete at the end of the program, it’s run through a proprietary scoring algorithm to show applicants how it would fare in a real situation.

Because of the immense responsibility that comes with running a cannabis business, Serrano quickly realized how much the industry could benefit from having more veterans in it. He said a big part of the application scoring is the applicant’s experience, and being accustomed to a highly regulated environment is essential.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the state’s veterans population is more than 428,000, including 101,432 from the Iraq War and 116,143 who enlisted during peacetime. This relatively untapped talent pool, Serrano said, will only grow with troops being pulled out of Afghanistan.

“They’re gonna need work,” Serrano said. “Not just any type of work. Work that’s good for the soul; work that heals them and others. There’s never been a time in history more than now where veterans are really gonna need the support of the workplace in New Jersey.”

New Jersey’s cannabis regulators on Thursday approved rules to set up the recreational marijuana marketplace, giving application priority to women-, minority- and disabled veteran-owned businesses and paving the way for sales to begin.

A timeline for when people 21 and older could head to a retailer to buy a marijuana cigarette, vape pen or edible wasn’t given, but state Cannabis Regulatory Commission chairperson Dianna Houenou said after the meeting that a date for when sales can begin hasn’t been set yet because the commission wants to be sure the application process goes smoothly. She said the start date is “admittedly uncertain.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

"Even the lowest-ranking person in the military has more accountability and responsibility than some CEOs in this industry."

David Serrano, managing partner for Cognitive Harmony Technologies Accelerator, a program that provides training and education to those looking to apply for cannabis licenses

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