Download the 2021 Insider 100: Cannabis Power List or view it below
Welcome to the 2021 Cannabis 100 Power List, InsiderNJ’s 2nd tribute to influential voices in New Jersey’s long battle to end cannabis prohibition. This year’s list emphasizes many whose advocacy finally made legalization happen here in New Jersey.
I’ve been a cannabis user since college and if you call me a stoner that’s ok because I like to smoke pot and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m also HIV+ so I use marijuana for medical purposes, too.
My life as a cannabis activist/archivist began in earnest on April 16th 1998 in San Francisco. The exact date is memorable because an LA Times reporter was there to chronicle what shaped up to be to the first medical cannabis raid in American history.
It’s hard to properly convey how scary and traumatizing it was watching hundreds of medically frail AIDS patients get manhandled into the streets by lots of men with guns. Those who resisted, and there were many who did, were cuffed and hauled away.
I was a scared, clueless kid far from home and super-closeted about my HIV status. There would be no resistance from me that day. I was afraid of going to jail and especially of having my weed confiscated. So I complied, even while my liberties were assaulted and stripped away.
The AIDS Connection
California voters made history in November of 1996 by passing Proposition 215, America’s first successful referendum to legalize medical cannabis. It’s no coincidence that the winning tally, over a million votes, was assured by huge margins in Los Angeles and San Francisco, two cities deeply devastated by America’s AIDS crisis.
Wasting away, covered in lesions, neglected by the government and often abandoned by their families is a staggeringly undignified way to die and it happened all the time.
Cannabis made dying of AIDS less awful.
The first line of anti-HIV meds in 1994 felt miraculous but they came with grueling side-effects. Cannabis curbed most of those symptoms allowing many HIV+ people (including myself) to tolerate the first generation of HIV drugs.
As New Jersey embarks upon its own experiment with marijuana legalization, I feel an urgent need to remind the world that AIDS set the table for marijuana reform in America. The earliest activism to get us here was done by people with AIDS and their caretakers. The suffering caused by AIDS changed enough hearts and minds that within a generation, America was ready to embrace marijuana reform.
And that’s how this all started.
Phil Murphy embraced marijuana legalization when he ran for Governor back in 2017. He won handily. His leadership on this issue means fewer pot arrests and, hopefully, eventually, the expungement of low-level pot crimes for anyone in New Jersey. Governor Murphy could have done this sooner but the legislature could never quite line up the votes for meaningful reform.
In the end, New Jersey voters did the heavy lifting. By a more than 2-to-1 margin, we amended our constitution to permit recreational cannabis.
New Jersey’s cannabis bonanza will be massive. Politically connected license-holders should cash in. Beyond that, much work remains to carry out the will of New Jersey voters whose demands to reform our marijuana laws still reverberate throughout the statehouse.
There’s a tired cliché in some circles that both parties are the same. The marijuana debate in Trenton should put that notion to bed. Since those early medical cannabis votes back in the aughts until today, whenever cannabis has been up for a vote in Trenton, most of the “YES” votes come from Democrats while the GOP usually mostly votes “NO.”
But that’s changing, little by little.
The late NJ Senator Gerry Cardinale spent many years voting “NO” whenever a cannabis bill crossed his desk. But the results of New Jersey’s cannabis referendum prompted him to reconsider his strident opposition.
Shortly before his death in February, Sen. Cardinale sponsored a bill so patients in New Jersey’s medical marijuana program could grow their own.
Somewhat ironically, given his enduring anti-pot track record, Cardinale’s bill fixes much of what’s still wrong with NJ’s medical marijuana program including price and accessibility.
Like millions of Americans, Senator Cardinale evolved on the issue of marijuana reform. We honor Cardinale’s legacy by passing laws to bring New Jersey in line with the rest of the nation by allowing medical cannabis patients to grow their own medicine.
That would be huge progress here in New Jersey where one pot plant means up to five years in jail. No joke. That’s not progress.
And that nothing like what voters demanded in November.