Managing COVID (+ Getting the Feds out of your Bong!)

Murphy in Somerset

Once in a blue moon, I’ll reach out directly to someone in NJ Governor Phil Murphy’s inner circle with a link to something I’ve written. Attached there’s a little note urging them to “please make sure the Governor sees this.”

It’s happened twice (maybe thrice) since Murphy took office including last month when I passed along this link. If you click and read, you’ll encounter  generous praise for Governor Murphy’s leadership on gargantuan issues like racism and deadly pandemics.

I also a noted a potential blindspot in NJ. And so I was eager to remind Murphy about the use of contract tracing in his native Massachusetts to combat COVID-19.

Just one week after I called in favors to emphasize New Jersey’s missed contact-tracing opportunities, the Murphy administration decided we “no longer has an immediate need for the thousands-strong body of public health officials Murphy had said was essential to the state’s economic reopening.”

So we de-prioritized contract tracing.

Which is the exact opposite of what I hoped for when gently nudging the Gov on the matter two weeks ago. Needless to say, that was a humbling coincidence.

NJ paid a heavy price to flatten the curve and now it feels like we’re on shaky ground again.

I clicked on yesterday’s NYTimes to learn that “over the past week, there have been an average of 420 cases per day, an increase of 63 percent from the average two weeks earlier.”

Local news headlines are sobering: “Coronavirus rate of transmission climbs to highest level in months”

And just like, our hard-earned gains against the coronavirus suddenly feel imperiled.

There’s a lot of criticism pointed at NJ Governor Phil Murphy that feels irrational and mean-spirited, especially in the coronavirus era. And so piling on now almost makes me feel badly. But if we learned anything from the last pandemic it’s that silence equals death.

Contact tracing in Massachusetts has enabled indoor dining in restaurants. Germany’s robust contact tracing protocols mean pupils are back in school right now.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

So can we please bring back those contract tracers already?

The Federal Gov’s War on Sick People 

Surviving the AIDS crisis came down to luck and timing. The life-saving anti-HIV drug “cocktail” became widely available in 1994. If your immune system held out until then, your prospects were pretty good.

But that miraculous cocktail came with some pretty brutal side effects.

I’ve been HIV+ since 1992 and I’ve been using cannabis the entire time. Most of that time as a criminal thanks to state- and federal lawmakers who resist efforts to fix our marijuana laws to this day.

In most states, cannabis reform happens at the ballot box and so it’s the voters (and not the politicians) doing the heavy lifting. And so it goes for NJ this November when voters may choose to legalize recreational cannabis.

I moved to San Francisco shortly after California voters legalized medical cannabis in 1996. I wasn’t on meds yet but I liked to smoke pot and these dispensaries, the first in America, were a place for society’s rejects to hang out and find a sense community.

But cannabis was still a federal crime back then. So we puffed away knowing the Feds could raid us at any time.

Cannabis is still illegal at the Federal level. So if an impulsive president wanted to  weaponize his Justice Department, there’s nothing stopping him from going after the cannabis industry.

Congress recently voted to block the Feds from enforcing federal cannabis bans in states where recreational- and medical cannabis is already legal. The vote was mostly along party lines, which is typical. While Democratic lawmakers usually votes YES when given the opportunity to fix America’s pot laws, their GOP counterparts mostly vote no.

That’s how it usually happens anyway.

Congressman Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) is one of only 6 Democrats to green-light Federal intrusion into state cannabis laws. Gottheimer joined Chris Smith and Jeff Van Drew, the Republicans in NJ’s Congressional delegation, to Just Say No.

In the end, Mr Gottheimer, who opposes legalizing cannabis, ultimately voted to pass the spending bill the pot amendment was attached to.

My colleague Jonathan D. Salant reported that “Gottheimer joined the other nine Democrats from the Garden State in supporting the final bill, including the cannabis provision, while Van Drew and Smith joined every other House Republican in voting no.”

Josh Gottheimer is enamored of the idea that he’s some kind of moderate, centrist problem solver in Congress. But empowering Trump’s Justice Department against pot users is neither centrist nor moderate.

It’s actually quite radical.

Especially given this president’s track record.


Jay Lassiter is a writer and podcaster based in Cherry Hill NJ. He’s been HIV+ over 28 years which literally means his diseases are older than most of the people advising the governor right now. 


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