Which South Jersey Dem Congressional Hopeful Shines on Marijuana Reform? (and who’s *really* bad?)

From left: Bennett, Cunningham, Harrison, and Kennedy.

Democratic primaries are the best time for liberals to insinuate liberal issues into the discussion. So let’s head down to South Jersey and talk about marijuana.

(Atlantic City) — The race to take on Jefferson Van Drew in NJ’s 2nd Congressional district is the hottest primary in New Jersey at the moment. Ex-Democrat Van Drew recently defected to the GOP and was last seen sitting on Donald Trump’s lap purring like a kitty.

Three women have emerged as early favorites to battle Van Drew in November: political scientist Dr Brigid Harrison, Freeholder Ashley Bennett, and Amy Kennedy a former teacher and spouse to ex-Congressman Patrick Kennedy. One of these women with deep South Jersey ties will win the democratic primary on June 2nd.

(Get to know NJ’s sprawling 2nd Congressional District here!)

As the Democrats decide their candidate to take on Van Drew in November, there’s a lot to consider: who’s toughest? Does experience and longevity matter? And who’s best equipped to put Jeff Van Drew out to pasture? Basically so far, the debate between rival camps has mostly centered around who’s an insider and who’s not.

But let’s put personalities aside and talk policy, specifically marijuana policy.

If you’re a Democratic Primary voter in NJ2 who cares about cannabis reform, you have two outstanding choices in Ashley Bennett and Brigid Harrison who both have thoughtful, detailed plans to end the War of Drugs that criminalized non-violent cannabis users.

The other front runner, Amy Kennedy, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing in cannabis reform.

Medical

This sprawling South Jersey Congressional district includes a dispensary called Compassion Care Foundation, home of the $520 ounce, widely considered the most expensive medical marijuana dispensary in America.

So what about those price points??

InsiderNJ contacted the the frontrunners and asked about home grow provisions. Brigid Harrison and Ashley Bennett agree with the majority of medical cannabis states which permit patients to grown their own cannabis.

Amy Kennedy does not think patients should grow their own. We asked twice and gave her extra time for the ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ reply which never came. Instead Amy Kennedy dodged a very easy yes-or-no question.

On the other hand, her rivals said plenty:

Brigid Callahan:

“I advocate for removal of cannabis from the schedule of Controlled Substances. If that happens, individuals cannot be prevented from growing their own (for personal use) any more than the government can prevent one from growing tomatoes or eggplant.”

Freeholder Bennett echoed that sentiment:

“If marijuana is to be legal, so should the growing and cultivation of one’s own plants, with proper permitting, inspection and safety regulations,” Freeholder Bennett told InsiderNJ.  “The Senate previously passed a legalization bill that included home cultivation. With proper oversight, provisions in state law that allow for ‘home grow’ should be an available option for our residents. Let’s get it done”

Dr. Harrison emphasized the point.

“Jay, let’s be clear — while you are speaking about NJ’s medical population, I am speaking about a national constituency that is deeply in need of relief on this measure,” Dr Harrison told InsiderNJ.

She then described her late brother’s challenging last days when medical cannabis was his only salve. Blessedly, could afford $500 for an ounce of NJ medical cannabis.

“The thought of an individual being denied access to something that could alleviate the symptoms of a chronic illness or alleviate the pain and suffering of a terminal illness is sickening,” Dr Harrison told InsiderNJ. “To deny individuals the right to grow their own medical marijuana is cruel and perpetuates a system of inequity, where the wealthy elites have access while those with limited resources are denied access because of their financial circumstances. That’s wrong, and we have to fix it.”

Rescheduling of cannabis 

According to the DEA, Cannabis is currently classified  as Schedule 1 narcotic — along with heroin, ecstasy and LSD —  which are “defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

All three front runners would overturn that, an acknowledgment – at least tacitly – of benefits of medical cannabis for so many.

Amy Kennedy:

“I believe we need to de-schedule marijuana and do further research on the long-term impacts before we allow there to be mass marketing and commercialization of it, especially to kids and teens.”

(Something we agree on! Let the church say Amen!)

Ashley Bennett:

“It is important to consider that any realistic stance on marijuana legalization should be considered from two fronts: the state regulations and Federal laws. When I get to Congress I will vote and advocate for the removal of cannabis from the list of controlled substances, removing it from Schedule 1 classification, with the expungement of criminal records for those who were convicted of its low-level use and/or possession. Plain and simple.”

Brigid Harrison:

“It is imperative that the federal government take the lead on this issue. The federal government should (remove) cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, because families should not be torn apart due to a loved one being incarcerated on a minor marijuana charge.”

 

Bill Caruso is a marijuana lobbyist in Trenton who did enough time on South Jersey campaigns to weigh in authoritatively.

“People more seeped in this effort know that rescheduling on a federal level is the bare minimum,” Mr Caruso told InsiderNJ “It’s time for rescheduling plus. Rescheduling plus to expand Medicaid and Medicare coverage and baseline insurance options.”

Mr Caruso went on:

“What do we tell someone, the veteran who served this country, but can’t get their medicine at the VA hospital,” Caruso said. So rescheduling is nice but we need someone in Congress who’s going to hit the gas pedal to make up for what we haven’t done during the last decade.”

Expungement.

Amy Kennedy is outraged.

“As a former public school teacher who saw many of my students’ lives destroyed by the school-to-prison pipeline, I’m wholeheartedly in favor of decriminalizing marijuana and expunging past marijuana convictions,” Mrs Kennedy told InsiderNJ. “Our drug laws have not been applied fairly across racial lines. I’m outraged by how overzealous prosecution of those possessing even small amounts has disproportionately impacted people of color.”

Sounds forward-leaning, right?

We heard the same tune from the NJ legislature when, for all of 2019, Trenton seemed poised to decriminalize and expunge. Their lofty rhetoric lacked specifics too. The effort to expunge kept hitting a brick wall because the devil was in the details.

Marijuana was decriminalized in NYC during the Mike Bloomberg era but that didn’t stop the NYPD from arresting thousands of black and brown people for public consumption in contravention of the decrim laws.

Amy Kennedy’s very non-specific plan to decriminalize and expunge reminds of the time a really smart lawyer warned me about expungement talk that lacked specificity.

Alma Saravia is an attorney at Flaster Greenberg PC in Cherry Hill.

“Most people will not be able to do an expungement petition themselves no matter how ‘easy’ the (claims,)” Ms. Saravia told InsiderNJ. “In my experience, the expungement process will be a nightmare unless there’s major funding for vitally needed changes to the law.”

Does that sound like something a Latino kid from Vineland trying to clear his record could navigate?

Ballot measure

Whoever wins the Democratic primary will be on a November 2020 ballot that includes a referendum to legalize cannabis for adult recreational use in New Jersey.

Brigid Callahan is a YES vote.

“I support the legalization of regulated buying and selling of marijuana,” she said, the matter clearly settled.

Likewise Ashley Bennett never equivocated on the issue of cannabis legalization.

“A ‘Yes’ vote on the state-wide referendum will be giant leap forward towards progress, and I strongly support the ‘Yes’ position,” she told InsiderNJ.

Once again, Amy Kennedy dodged.

“As you know, the topic of legalization is currently in front of New Jersey voters, and I’ll defer to their judgment on it,” Amy Kennedy said.

Decriminalization v Legalization

If you’re the kind of person who can walk through Whole Foods and throw whatever you want in the basket without looking at price tags, it doesn’t matter what our marijuana laws are because you’ll be fine.

For someone like me, a middle class white guy with lawyers on speed dial, Mrs. Kennedy’s plan to decriminalize cannabis is more than sufficient. If I’m unlucky enough to get cited, I’d whip out a card, pay my fine and be on my merry way.

That’s what liberals mean when we talk about privilege. A second, third, fourth pot citation? No problem because I can buy myself another clean slate each and every time. No one’s forcing me into rehab and no one’s coming for my kids or deporting me which can totally happen even after cannabis is decriminalized.

But what about your average Vineland or Bridgeton resident who doesn’t shop at Whole Foods?

“Decriminalization really is a solution for the affluent and not so much for that 18-year-old kid in Pleasantville,” Dr Harrison told InsiderNJ.

Or Atlantic City. Or Cape May Courthouse. Or Egg harbor City.

And so on.

“Decriminalization means 10 different things to 10 different people,” Mr Caruso told InsiderNJ. “And in some instances it’s a gravy train for the recovery industry. My question for these candidates is: who are you keeping counsel with?”

Amy Kennedy’s husband, the former Congressman Patrick Kennedy is a scion of the most legendary political dynasty in American history. He’s dedicated his many considerable talents and influence into preventing cannabis legalization from happening.

Patrick Kennedy and his crew have softened their tone on medical cannabis and adopted a rehab-centric decriminalization model over the years. But they fought medical back in 2009-201o as hard as they fight legalization in 2020.

Mrs. Kennedy’s plan to decriminalize cannabis is a green light to the black market (aka the cartels) which is where people are forced to go whenever something’s not legal. Remember the outbreak of vaping deaths and illnesses last year? That’s what happens when the unregulated, black market is allowed to thrive.

(I was one of the unlucky ones who got sick using black market vapes instead of going to NJ’s overpriced dispensaries. Which might partially explain my bias on this matter.)

Marijuana decriminalization, in whatever form, means ZERO tax revenue from cannabis sales for NJ. All of it, every cent, goes to: 1) other legal states 2) the black market or 3) cartels. That’s Amy Kennedy’s plan for marijuana reform in 2020. I can scarcely imagine a more deceptively retrograde approach than that.

Ashley Bennett’s thoughtful and detailed plan to reform America’s cannabis laws would direct some cannabis tax revenue back to the communities most devastated by the War on Drugs.

“Tax revenues should return directly to the communities in which it is sold,” Ms Bennett told InsiderNJ. But a portion of this revenue should be set aside for other state-wide programs such as interventions that intercept the overprescription of opioids and initiatives such as job programs for those who have felt the negative repercussions of these marijuana laws that spun out of control.”

When it came to cannabis policy, Brigid Harrison did her homework and her plan proves it. She wants 1) restorative justice for communities most ravaged by our racist pot laws and 2) a path for minority communities to get a fair slice of the burgeoning billion dollar cannabis industry.

“As Congresswoman, I would support the levying of a 5 percent sales tax on marijuana and marijuana products to create a dedicated revenue stream to assist those negatively impacted by the policy of criminalized marijuana, including job training and re-entry and other services needed by those returning to their communities. Communities, too, need to be made whole, and small business development grants should be funded to ensure that communities that have paid the price for criminalized marijuana are given the opportunity to thrive and prosper through legalization.”

Meanwhile Amy Kennedy awaits more research.

In conclusion….

Ashley Bennett and Brigid Harrison each have a thoughtful, detailed plan how they would tax and regulate recreational cannabis in Congress. Amy Kennedy’s cannabis reform plan is light on details and heavy on bromides. She cribs much of the same decrim language from her husband’s cannabis prohibition sites which makes it hard to take her seriously as an independent voice.

So vote accordingly.

Jay Lassiter is an award winning writer, podcaster, and videographer. He’s been HIV+ for 27 years and used medical marijuana the entire time. Most of that time as a criminal. 

 

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  • NJBlech

    I for one don’t want to get behind the Norcrats simply because Jay Lassiter says they say the right things about marijuana policy. If you have doubts about Caruso’s Norcrat credentials go ask Alex Law about his experiences with Caruso back in 2016 (there is no doubt about Harrison). Law from 2016 (Aregood, J.T. 6 Jun. 2016. Law: Documents Show Collusion Between Norcross Campaign and County Officials. Observer): “Bill Caruso, a troll who has been spreading lies about me online and has repeatedly said he is not working for the Norcross campaign, is exposed here as clearly part of their inside staff.” Do we really want to get behind the Norcrats simply because they say the right things about marijuana policy? And why does Lassiter give so much attention to Caruso, a non-candidate, while other candidates in the Congressional race, like Will Cunningham, are completely ignored? Lassiter put poor Will, and the other CD-2 Democratic candidates not mentioned, out into journalism’s equivalent of ballot Siberia. Wasn’t Bill Caruso once Chief of Staff for Congressman Bob Andrews? What was Bob Andrews’ positions on medical and recreational marijuana and was Caruso on board with Andrews’ positions back then?

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