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.