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Planning on pot: California company Terra Tech setting up infrastructure in anticipation of legalization

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Steve Vande Vrede, a director of Terra Tech and Edible Garden, talks inside a hydroponic basil greenhouse at Edible Garden in Belvidere.
Steve Vande Vrede, a director of Terra Tech and Edible Garden, talks inside a hydroponic basil greenhouse at Edible Garden in Belvidere. - (PHOTO BY AARON HOUSTON)

Derek Peterson may be the CEO of a California-based urban agriculture business, but he's betting big on New Jersey.

His company, Terra Tech, currently operates greenhouses in both Belvidere and Lincoln Park and focuses on local farming through innovative practices.

At the moment, produce is king for Peterson and his company. In two to three years, however, he's hoping that focus shifts — to cannabis.

Go ahead and cue the "Garden State" pun now.

For Terra Tech, the infrastructure is already in place at his New Jersey facilities to begin cultivating marijuana. Entering the New Jersey market last April, Peterson invested in the facilities believing that at some point, the state's attitudes toward marijuana legalization would warm — and his company would be prepared to deliver.

"Our national business model is that we need to build out an infrastructure based on the assumption that at some point … we're going to be able to grow this stuff on an industrial scale," Peterson said.

Terra Tech is either exploring its options or has already set up shop in other states, such as Indiana, Nevada and Florida. Add New Jersey to that mix and there's a common theme: none have legalized pot for recreational usage.

So why not head to Colorado or Washington?

"We tend to look at markets that are developing rather than in a developed market," Peterson says.

Peterson believes that New Jersey is headed toward marijuana legalization. It might not be overnight, but eventually the state will get there.

And if one lawmaker in Trenton has anything to say about it, Peterson might not have to wait that long.

As was anticipated, state Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) announced last week that he had introduced a bill that would look to legalize, regulate and subsequently tax marijuana in New Jersey.

Besides saving more than $100 million in enforcing marijuana laws, which Scutari is sensitive to with his background as a Union County prosecutor, he claims the move would create jobs and provide much-needed tax revenue.

"Colorado has successfully implemented its law, creating jobs and generating tax revenue far beyond the state's expectations," Scutari said. "Regulating the sale and consumption of marijuana in New Jersey will not only benefit the state financially but will mean a safer and more responsible way of treating this drug and a more humane way of treating our residents."

Unfortunately for Terra Tech, Gov. Chris Christie is also taking an interest in Colorado, in a very different way.

"We're not going to have recreational pot in New Jersey, not at least as long as I'm governor," Christie said last August following U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's announcement that he would not challenge Colorado and Washington's voter-approved legalizations, a move Christie called a "mistake."

It's a position Christie has stood by, even as recently as last week on his monthly "Ask the Governor" radio program on Townsquare Media, when he reiterated that legalization wouldn't happen under his watch.

But Peterson wasn't naïve about coming to New Jersey. He knows it won't happen under Christie, but that's why he's in it for the long haul. The rest of the Legislature, he says, is "very, very supportive."

Evan Nison, director for Terra Tech's Northeast cannabis division, says he has been working closely with legislators in Trenton and is confident that a change in the governor's office will result in statewide legalization.

In the meantime, one way legalization proponents might be able to appeal to Christie is through the potential for competition with New York.

Nison says it's "hard to say" right now which state will make the first move forward when it comes to legalizing pot, but New Jersey is the only one of the two with any medical marijuana laws on the books.

The infrastructure and the jobs that Scutari touts in his bill could be lost if New York were to beat New Jersey to the punch, Peterson says.

Right now, Terra Tech is committed to New Jersey, but if the industry were to open up on the other side of the Hudson, Peterson says he'd consider setting up shop there.

"The real importance for New Jersey is first-mover advantage over New York," Peterson said. "You've got to get a head start over New York."

E-mail to: andrewg@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @andrgeorge

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Andrew George

Andrew George

Andrew George covers the Statehouse from NJBIZ's Trenton bureau. Born and raised in N.J., Andrew has also spent time as a reporter in D.C., Texas and Pa. His email is andrewg@njbiz.com and he is @AndrGeorge on Twitter.

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