Medical Marijuana Advocate Zito Hopeful of Scutari’s Leadership

Joanne Zito

Almost a year after New Jersey voters signaled 2-to-1 that marijuana should be legal in the state, the Gold Dome has yet to roll out an actual apparatus allowing for the legal retail sales of the plant which has been the epicenter of decades of controversy.  Senator Nick Scutari warned of a “constitutional crisis” if the state did not deliver on marijuana and, some thirteen months later, little has changed.  There was no constitutional crisis to speak of, except that New Jerseyans were shown, once again, the disconnect between the popular will and respect shown toward it by those they chose to enact laws on their behalf.  Regardless, the new year presents a slightly altered political landscape where cannabis policy could potentially take root in a meaningful way, possibly undoing some of the damage the state’s Democratic leaders brought onto themselves by dragging their heels.

There are many reasons Governor Phil Murphy did more poorly at the polls than was expected.  Marijuana legislation is not among the top considerations by political movers and shakers.  What was missed out on, however, was the impact of the residents of this state who felt let down and ignored—specifically those who would have been counted on as sure Murphy voters.

InsiderNJ spoke with two individuals from Passaic County who would have been the kind of voters Phil Murphy should have been able to count on.  S. Gordon Johnson (no relation to the Assemblyman from LD37) and his fiancée Elizabeth were among the overlooked-but-presumably-assured voters.  Elizabeth asked for her last name not to be used due to the nature of the topic, concerned about potential impacts on her employment.

Gordon works as an autobody mechanic and Elizabeth is a travel agent.  The former worked without interruption, adapting as best he could, keenly conscious of the health risks posed by the pandemic in his line of work.  The latter was laid off as the travel industry collapsed but was able to find work as a state contact tracer, doing her part to try to help her fellow New Jerseyans during a time of unprecedented crisis.  When that chapter came to an end, she was able to find work once more in the travel field.

A year ago, they voted for Joe Biden—more disgusted with Trump than enthused by the Democratic nominee—and voted in favor of marijuana legalization on New Jersey’s public question.  For Gordon, who was born out of state, it was the first time he felt excited enough to vote in a New Jersey election.  Middle-class, suburban, Millennial, liberal-leaning, these individuals fit the bill as “sure fire” Murphy voters, but they did not turn out to the polls in November of 2021 as they did the year before.  Johnson blamed the Democratic Party’s marijuana action, or lack thereof, as far as adult use retail was concerned.

“We were very excited to vote about it and that is when Gordon voted for the first time,” Elizabeth said.

“I voted for the first time in 20 years,” Gordon said.  “I was not a big fan of Trump, either, but I did get excited about [marijuana legalization].  Then all I’m told is that we’re never going to see it, or they’re only going to open six stores.”

Johnson said that Murphy’s actions spoke louder than words and was resigned to the idea that Murphy was just another multi-millionaire politician looking to score short-term points.  Elizabeth said that marijuana legalization was an important social justice issue, but she was not convinced that Murphy had any interests in mind aside from monied corporate ones.  Nevertheless, by mid-September, New Jersey courts had expunged some 362,000 marijuana offences from residents’ records.  But the ability to actually acquire the substance remains impossible a year after the referendum, except for those who have medical marijuana cards and are ready to buy the expensive products from sanctioned dispensaries.

“It’s not even about being able to use marijuana as much as the fact that he pushed for it, people voted for it, and nothing happened,” Elizabeth said.  “Phil Murphy did do things that I liked.  He did a good job with COVID, but lately it’s been nothing of substance coming out.”

“If Jack Ciattarelli got into office and said he was going to lower taxes, and taxes weren’t lowered, he would have made a lot of unhappy Republicans,” Johnson said.  “With Phil Murphy in office, if he says he’s going to legalize weed, I assume that would mean I’m going to be able to buy it—and then I can’t buy it—then he’s going to create a lot of unhappy Democrats.”

When asked if they would have gone out to vote had Trenton delivered, they said they would have.  An opportunity lost.

Nothing can be done to change 2021, but the year ahead provides an opportunity for state lawmakers to make good on their long-delayed promise which disenchanted some would-be Murphy supporters.  For Johnson, it is an economic no-brainer, considering the industrial applications a liberalized hemp sector could bring.  While there are still many opponents of marijuana legalization, it would be self-harming for any politician, whether Republican or Democrat, to obstinately oppose the bipartisan voice of two-thirds of New Jersey voters outright.

Jo Anne Zito of the ‘Coalition for Medical Marijuana – New Jersey’ believes that the new year will be a good one for the state’s medical marijuana patients, equity, and also for social justice.  She cited the departure of Senate President Stephen Sweeney, replaced by Senator Nick Scutari, as a reason to be optimistic for 2022.  “There is cause for hope,” Zito told Insider NJ.  “Scutari is a little bit better on cannabis.  He seems to definitely want to remove the felony issue, maybe make it a misdemeanor.”

Zito is a staunch advocate for New Jerseyans to be allowed to grow their own medical cannabis, something she says every state which has passed legalization allows to some degree, with the exception of New Jersey.  The reason?  Follow the money, as the old saying goes.  “They want to track it from seed to sale as much as possible and, I think, control the price.”  Zito said that without competition, cannabis prices will not come down as per normal market forces, and that in the present situation, medical marijuana remains very expensive.  She was also concerned about quality control issues such an arrangement represents.  “Honestly, I think that is one of the reasons why they did that, and homegrown cannabis doesn’t fit into it.  Sweeney was against it and with Sweeney out, it does give me hope.”

As far as Gordon and Elizabeth’s disappointment with the product of the referendum was concerned, Zito was more sanguine.  “The referendum doesn’t actually say [retail], it really just says regulating the sales and use.  The way that the ballot had it titled, legalization of marijuana, well, I was reading an article that said, statistically, most people don’t even read past the title.  It goes to explain that they’re legalizing a form of marijuana called ‘cannabis’ and that they’re legalizing adult use and sale, and it’s going to be regulated by the Cannabis Regulatory Commission.  But at the top it says ‘legalize marijuana’, which they conveniently did not legalize.  They left that as the term for illicit cannabis, which is also considered, legally, a schedule one drug.  So, if it’s not from a regulated facility, then it’s not legal.”

Delivering a rational policy with regards to the actual letter of the referendum question endorsed by two thirds of the voters would be a boon for the governor, especially if he is going to have to contend with the implications of Sweeney gunning for the governorship.  “Murphy would get credibility for home grow, especially since he said twice on the 2021 campaign trail that he thought it was a good conversation to have.”

As Democrats continue to remain their own worst enemies when in the majority, the figures of Stephen Sweeney and Phil Murphy dominate our period of New Jersey political history.  Sweeney’s subsequent fall to Ed Durr, a political novice, has given the Senate President a new license to pursue the governor’s seat for himself and set the field ablaze for Phil Murphy in his second term.  With Sweeney announcing his intention to run for governor in 2025, Zito admitted it was difficult to say to what extent Sweeney’s influence will hold true over cannabis policy in the years ahead.  “I want to be optimistic about the [medical program] expanding,” Zito said.  “I’m more of a ‘grow my own leave me alone’ kind of person.  I don’t really care too much about the industry, but there are reasons why it should be regulated and why we should have measures to make sure it’s fair.  You really do need a regulated industry for this kind of thing.”

Zito asserts that Governor Murphy should make cannabis one of his priorities in order to gain further credibility with Democrats and the public in general.  He might even win back disappointed voters like Gordon and Elizabeth.  “There were three home grow cultivation bills, one of which unfortunately died with Senator Cardinale when he died.  That was a Republican-led bill,” Zito said.  (Across the aisle, Zito pointed to Senators Gopal and Singleton who introduced S3582 that would have permitted adults 21 and over to grow up to 6 plants for recreational use and 10 plants for medical use.)  Cannabis patients lost allies with LD11 Assemblywoman Joann Downey and Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling, but Zito said she plans to talk with their Republican successors Marilyn Piperno and Kim Eulner.  “It’s funny, I had to join the Republican Party to advocate for cannabis legalization.”

“Overall, for medical, things have improved a little,” Zito said.  “Although higher quality cannabis did get more expensive, some lower quality cannabis got less expensive, and it wasn’t just legal challenges that delayed the program but also the legislative delays caused problems, like with investors unsure of the future here and businesses unsure of how much to expand and when.  But it’s also a problem that they have not been able to get delivery off the ground yet.  I think I’m optimistic for the next year because of the promise of equity in the industry in the regulations. Also, while small time arrests have been eliminated, people can still get arrested for growing it or possessing larger amounts. An entrepreneur from Toms River was arrested after being accused of selling cannabis out of his apartment. Daniel Kessel is facing money laundering felonies connected to the sales [of cannabis] and he is looking to apply for legitimate business in New Jersey. Hopefully he can transition easily and his case is dismissed. That would really be reason to be optimistic.”

According to Jersey Shore Online reports, Kessel, 36, was arrested on October 20 in an Ocean County senior citizen community.  Residents complained of traffic build up due to his alleged marijuana business called “Bud Hub” operating out of a home there.  Police seized over $400,000, a Jeep, equipment, and he was taken to the Ocean County Jail.

“Other than prices improving, home grow, insurance coverage, and there being enough supply for patients so that they are not put at the back of the line to adult use again, my organization is also looking to have more qualifying conditions added to the program.  We’re also still waiting for delivery for medical patients and institutional caregivers established, and independent testing. The CRC just started accepting applications and all of these were in Jake Honig’s Law from 2019.”

The Jake Honig Compassionate Use Medical Cannabis Act, signed in the summer of 2019 by Governor Phil Murphy, was named after a child who died of terminal cancer seven years before.  The Act reformed the limits terminal patients could buy.  It also allowed doctors to authorized medical cannabis up to a year at a time for certain patients.

“Much seemed to be pending on legalization passing and establishing the Cannabis Regulatory Commission,” Zito said.  “I imagine it would have been harder for the Department of Health to handle all that on top of COVID.”  Considering the besieged state that the Department of Health and every state agency found itself in thanks to the coronavirus, Zito’s assertion would seem an absolute certainty.  Pandemic Uber Alles, the timing for Jake Honig’s Law was fortuitous and there is less political will to impose lockdowns since the mass roll-out of vaccines and boosters–although Governor Murphy retains the right to bring them back if needed in the new year.  New Jerseyans and their elected representatives might have more breathing space to revisit and re-examine the public’s expectations for the greater meaning and application of marijuana legalization.

So, the year 2021 did not deliver exactly what voters thought they were voting for as far as marijuana legalization is concerned, and Murphy suffered for that at least with some voters.  But with Sweeney out of the State Senate and Nick Scutari in the cockpit of the state’s upper house, Zito thinks that progress has been made, albeit slowly, and that the Republican Party should take heed as well.  “I really do hope the new Republicans are listening.  I’ve heard that Ed Durr who beat out Sweeney is a supporter of home grow, but he’s the new guy, he’s not going to have too much sway as he hasn’t been in politics.”

With 362,000 expungements and counting, each is a reason for Governor Murphy to aggressively push forward on bringing New Jersey’s cannabis policy into alignment at least with other states, but also to bolster the Democratic Party which was shaken by Jack Ciattarelli and his allies.  If Murphy has political aspirations beyond his second term, then building further on a coherent marijuana policy might just bring out the Gordons and Elizabeths he needs when Sweeney hits the campaign trail and inevitably begins hurling grenades at Murphy.  Sweeney, no longer shackled by the obligations of the senate presidency, will be willing and able to dedicate his full attention to bringing down his rival.  Meanwhile, the legislature, post-Red Wave and no longer checked by Sweeney, has an opportunity to mold itself into something more amenable to the voting base which is statistically more in favor of marijuana legalization than it was for re-electing its governor.

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  • Brian Kelly

    Cannabis consumers deserve and demand equal rights and protections under our laws that are currently afforded to the drinkers of far more dangerous and deadly, yet perfectly legal, widely accepted, endlessly advertised and even glorified as an All-American pastime, alcohol.

    Plain and simple!

    Legalize Nationwide Federally and Regulate Exactly Like Alcohol Now!

    It’s time for us, the majority of The People to take back control of our national cannabis policy. By voting OUT of office any and all politicians who very publicly and vocally admit to having an anti-cannabis, prohibitionist agenda! Time to vote’em all OUT of office. Period. Plain and simple.

    Politicians who continue to demonize Cannabis, Corrupt Law Enforcement Officials who prefer to ruin peoples lives over Cannabis possession rather than solve real crimes who fund their departments toys and salaries with monies acquired through cannabis home raids, seizures and forfeitures, and so-called “Addiction Specialists” who make their income off of the judicial misfortunes of our citizens who choose cannabis, – Your actions go against The Will of The People and Your Days In Office Are Numbered! Find new careers before you don’t have one.

    The People have spoken! Get on-board with Cannabis Legalization Nationwide, or be left behind and find new careers. Your choice.

    • Brian Kelly

      The “War on Cannabis” has been a complete and utter failure. It is the largest component of the broader yet equally unsuccessful “War on Drugs” that has cost our country over a trillion dollars.

      Instead of The United States wasting Billions upon Billions more of our yearly tax dollars fighting a never ending “War on Cannabis”, lets generate Billions of dollars, and improve the deficit instead. Especially now, due to Covid-19. It’s a no brainer.

      The Prohibition of Cannabis has also ruined the lives of many of our loved ones. In numbers greater than any other nation, our loved ones are being sent to jail and are being given permanent criminal records. Especially, if they happen to be of the “wrong” skin color or they happen to be from the “wrong” neighborhood. Which ruin their chances of employment for the rest of their lives, and for what reason?

      Cannabis is much safer to consume than alcohol. Yet do we lock people up for choosing to drink?

      Let’s end this hypocrisy now!

      The government should never attempt to legislate morality by creating victim-less cannabis “crimes” because it simply does not work and costs the taxpayers a fortune.

      Cannabis Legalization Nationwide is an inevitable reality that’s approaching much sooner than prohibitionists think and there is nothing they can do to stop it!

      Legalize Nationwide! Support Each and Every Cannabis Legalization Initiative!

      • Brian Kelly

        In the prohibitionist’s world, anybody who consumes the slightest amount of cannabis responsibly in the privacy of their own homes are “stoners” and “dopers” that need to be incarcerated in order to to protect society.

        In their world, any cannabis use equates to cannabis abuse, and it is their God given duty to worry about “saving us all” from the “evils” of cannabis use.

        Who are they to tell us we can’t choose cannabis, the safer choice instead of alcohol for relaxation, after a long, hard day, in the privacy of our own homes?

        People who consume cannabis are smart, honest, hard working, educated, and successful people too, who “follow the law” also.(except for their cannabis consumption under it’s current prohibition of course) .

        Not the stereotypical live at home losers prohibitionists make them out to be. They are doctors, lawyers, professors, movie stars, and politicians too.

        Several Presidents of The United States themselves, along with Justin Trudeau, Bill Gates, and Carl Sagan have all confessed to their cannabis use. As have a long and extensive list of successful people throughout history at one point or other in their lives.

        Although that doesn’t mean a dam thing to people who will make comments like “dopers” and “stoners” about anybody who uses the slightest amount of cannabis although it is way safer than alcohol.

        To these people any use equals abuse, and that is really ignorant and full of hypocrisy. While our society promotes, advertises, and even glorifies alcohol consumption like it’s an All American pastime.

        There is nothing worse about relaxing with a little cannabis after a long hard day than having a drink or two of alcohol.

        So come off those high horses of yours. Who are you to dictate to the rest of society that we can’t enjoy cannabis, the safer choice over alcohol, in the privacy of our own homes?

        We’ve worked real hard our whole lives to provide for our loved ones. We don’t appreciate prohibitionists trying to impose their will and morals upon us all.

        Has a cannabis consumer ever forced you to use it? Probably not. So nobody has the right to force anybody not to either.

        Don’t try to impose your morality and “clean living” upon everybody else with Draconian Cannabis Laws, and we won’t think you’re such prohibitionist hypocrites.

        Legalize Nationwide! Support Each and Every Cannabis Legalization Initiative!

        • Brian Kelly

          Cannabis Consumers Are Not Criminals!

          End the systematically failed both state and federal policies of criminalizing consumers of a natural, relatively benign plant, proven to be far safer than perfectly legal, widely accepted alcohol and tobacco.

          End The Federal Prohibition of Cannabis Now!

          Legalize Nationwide! State by state if need be!

          It’s time our country wakes up and learns from our history.

          Prohibition does not prevent people from consuming cannabis. The demand will be there always and therefore cannabis will always be served up to the public regardless of cannabis prohibition laws. The alcohol prohibition era criminal organizations and gangsters such as Al Capone of yesteryear are the Pablo Escobar, El Chapo and drug cartels of today.

          The Temperance Movement didn’t catch on and last in part because it was a dead horse from the start.

          Prohibition only serves to further fuel the vast wealth and corruption, violence and death attributed to the criminal organizations which flourish under it. By providing cannabis to meet the continual demand at inflated prices. Just like with alcohol, cannabis prohibition doesn’t work, makes no sense, and costs the tax payers a fortune yearly.

          Legalization creates jobs, improves the economy and let’s us as a nation focus the wasted resources currently used to criminalize citizens over cannabis towards things much more needed and useful.

          This is how freedoms get taken away from The People. First, a small minority doesn’t morally approve of cannabis. Tomorrow, it’s R-Rated movies, certain books and literature and eventually that minority aspires to make every citizen conform to their personal sense of morality through laws which criminalize everything that they personally don’t approve of.

          Tell us something prohibitionists:

          Why do you feel justified in endlessly wasting billions upon billions of our yearly federal tax dollars continuing to arrest, criminalize, incarcerate, and hand out life long permanent criminal records to otherwise hard-working, tax-paying, adult citizens for choosing to consume cannabis although it is far safer than perfectly legal, widely accepted alcohol?

          Shouldn’t their first and foremost priority be protesting the legality of alcohol if they really aren’t just biased and truly so “concerned” about other people on what those whom oppose cannabis legalization deem to be a “dangerous drug”?

          Why do the anti-cannabis folk apply such a blatantly obvious unfair double standard to far less dangerous cannabis that they obviously don’t apply equally to far more deadly, dangerous and harmful yet perfectly legal, widely accepted alcohol?

          Legalize Nationwide!

          • Brian Kelly

            Fear of Cannabis Legalization Nationwide is unfounded. Not based on any science or fact whatsoever. So please prohibitionists, we beg you to give your scare tactics, “Conspiracy Theories” and “Doomsday Scenarios” over the inevitable Legalization of Cannabis Nationwide a rest. Nobody is buying them anymore these days. Okay?

            Furthermore, if all prohibitionists get when they look into that nice, big and shiny crystal ball of theirs, while wondering about the future of cannabis legalization, is horror, doom, and despair, well then I suggest they return that thing as quickly as possible and reclaim the money they shelled out for it, since it’s obviously defective.

            The prohibition of cannabis has not decreased the supply nor the demand for cannabis at all. Not one single iota, and it never will. Just a huge and complete waste of our tax dollars to continue criminalizing citizens for choosing a natural, non-toxic, relatively benign plant proven to be much safer than alcohol.

            If prohibitionists are going to take it upon themselves to worry about “saving us all” from ourselves, then they need to start with the drug that causes more death and destruction than every other drug in the world COMBINED, which is alcohol!

            Why do prohibitionists feel the continued need to vilify and demonize cannabis when they could more wisely focus their efforts on a real, proven killer, alcohol, which again causes more destruction, violence, and death than all other drugs, COMBINED?

            Prohibitionists really should get their priorities straight and/or practice a little live and let live. They’ll live longer, happier, and healthier, with a lot less stress if they refrain from being bent on trying to control others through Draconian Cannabis Laws.

          • Brian Kelly

            There is absolutely no doubt now that the majority of Americans want to completely legalize cannabis nationwide. Our numbers grow on a daily basis.

            The prohibitionist view on cannabis is the viewpoint of a minority and rapidly shrinking percentage of Americans. It is based upon decades of lies and propaganda.

            Each and every tired old lie they have propagated has been thoroughly proven false by both science and society.

            Their tired old rhetoric no longer holds any validity. The vast majority of Americans have seen through the sham of cannabis prohibition in this day and age. The number of prohibitionists left shrinks on a daily basis.

            With their credibility shattered, and their not so hidden agendas visible to a much wiser public, what’s left for a cannabis prohibitionist to do?

            Maybe, just come to terms with the fact that Cannabis Legalization Nationwide is an inevitable reality that’s approaching much sooner than prohibitionists think, and there is nothing they can do to stop it!

            Legalize Nationwide!…and Support All Cannabis Legalization Efforts!

          • Brian Kelly

            “Cannabis is 114 times safer than drinking alcohol”

            “Cannabis may be even safer than previously thought, researchers say”

            “Cannabis may be even safer than previously thought, researchers say New study: We should stop fighting Cannabis legalization and focus on alcohol and tobacco instead By Christopher Ingraham February 23

            Compared with other recreational drugs — including alcohol — Cannabis may be even safer than previously thought. And researchers may be systematically underestimating risks associated with alcohol use.

            Those are the top-line findings of recent research published in the journal Scientific Reports, a subsidiary of Nature. Researchers sought to quantify the risk of death associated with the use of a variety of commonly used substances. They found that at the level of individual use, alcohol was the deadliest substance, followed by heroin and cocaine.”
            -washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/02/23/Cannabis-may-be-even-safer-than-previously-thought-researchers-say/

            “The report discovered that Cannabis is 114 times less deadly than alcohol. Researchers were able to determine this by comparing the lethal doses with the amount of typical use. Through this approach, Cannabis had the lowest mortality risk to users out of all the drugs they studied. In fact—because the numbers were crossed with typical daily use—Cannabis is the only drug that tested as “low risk.”

            -complex.com/pop-culture/2015/02/scientific-reports-weed-114-safer-alcohol

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