George Larcher

Advocates Weigh in on Role Cannabis Policy Played in New Jersey & Virginia Governor Races

The Midterm elections saw two pro-cannabis politicians elevated to the governor’s seats as New Jersey chose Democrat Phil Murphy over Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, and Virginia voters tabbed Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat physician, over Republican Ed Gillespie in Virginia. While both governors-elect support cannabis law reforms, on the campaign trail, Murphy indicated he wanted to sign a tax-and-regulate measure within his first 100 days on the job.

New Jersey

During his reign, anti-cannabis zealot Gov. Chris Christie – who remains head-of-state until Jan. 16 – dismissed the state’s medical cannabis program, which signed into law by then-outgoing governor Jon Corzine, as a “front for legalization.” He referred to adult-use programs as “beyond stupidity,” despite a majority of his constituents’, 59 percent, indicating in a September Quinnipiac University poll that they support legalization.

By comparison then, Murphy, a U.S. Ambassador to Germany under the Obama Administration and former Goldman Sachs Asia president, is a welcome reprieve for medical cannabis patients and industry operators after eight years of executive obstructionism (although, to his credit, Christie did sign a legislative-approved bill last year adding post-traumatic stress disorder to the state’s qualifying conditions list).

“We’re very happy that we now have a governor who supports marijuana reform,” said Ken Wolski, chief executive officer for the Coalition for Medical Marijuana – New Jersey, in an interview with Ganjapreneur. CMMJ endorsed broad legalization in 2014 after 11 years of having no position on the issue because of “how poorly” the medical cannabis system was functioning and “in recognition of the social harms” that come with prohibition, he said.

Wolski explained that the organization believes that Murphy is supporting legalization for “the right reasons … the social justice reasons,” rather than an avenue to fill state coffers, adding that adult-use legalization will allow cannabis to act more as an “over-the-counter medication” and people who need or want to use it therapeutically will have access without needing state-issued program identification cards or doctor approval.

While the advocacy group plans to support the legalization proposal by state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, Wolski admitted that there are changes he would like to see to the measure, including home-grow and social-use provisions.

“Even if [home-grow] doesn’t make its way into the recreational bill we hope that at least the medical bill will be amended to allow patients to grow their own medicines,” he said. “The other concern, right now, is that it doesn’t allow for [public use] and that would still be apparently against the law. This is a concern because, basically, it penalizes people for being poor – if you’re homeless you don’t have a place to use your marijuana; if you live in subsidized housing, you can be thrown out for using marijuana. If you have your own house, you’re ok, if you’re challenged financially this ‘no-smoking in public’ could really hurt you.”

Photo credit: Sarah Climaco

Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, said the organization is “pretty excited” that Christie is on his way out and, once Murphy takes the helm, legalization in New Jersey is “not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s a matter of ‘when.’” Strekal also said that advocates in the state are already working on potentially fixing some of the issues in Scutari’s bill, which they identify as not only the home-growing issue but also language that allows law enforcement to enter private residences and “the ability of the state to ramp up sin taxes.”

Legalization in 100 days, however, “depends on the legislature,” Strekal said, noting that the legislation is already written.

“It’s just a matter of them having the political will to actually follow through on their campaign promises,” he said in a phone interview, “and given the strong support of Senate President [Stephen] Sweeney and the very strong support of Governor-Elect Murphy we think it’s very possible.”

Kate Bell, legislative counsel for MPP, opined that the role cannabis played in the race was “the most prominent” the organization has seen.

“I think it’s part of a larger trend of people who have been advocates or are in the industry running for office,” she said in an interview, pointing to Democratic Sen. Jared Polis’ bid for the governor’s seat in Colorado, and Denver Relief Consulting Founding Partner Kayvan Khalatbari’s campaign for mayor of Denver. “It’s exciting to see [cannabis] as a campaign issue at this level.


In Virginia, broad legalization is not at stake – but decriminalization and perhaps a broadening of the state’s limited medical cannabis program are – and Governor-Elect Ralph Northam is the state’s best chance at reforms if he can get the legislature on board.

In an August letter to the Virginia State Crime Commission, who was studying decriminalization simple cannabis possession, Northam called prohibition “costly and disproportionately harmful to communities of color,” adding that the state spends $67 million annually on cannabis enforcement, which he pointed out would create 13,000 pre-k openings. In a February interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, he said, “as a doctor,” he was “open-minded” about cannabis therapies, noting that “over 100” of contemporary medicines are derived from plants. Northam, who had worked as a pediatric neurologist at the Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters until he began campaigning, said he “often” came across patients who used cannabis.

Photo credit: Sarah Climaco

Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director for Virginia NORML, said that Northam’s cannabis positions are “legitimate,” and he’s been “serious” about reforms since his time as lieutenant-governor.

“You could see from his campaign that he [made those positions known] straight away,” she pointed out. “He made not only doctor-recommended medical cannabis access a mainstay of his stumping points, but also decriminalization – and that was certainly new, not only for Virginia lawmakers but Virginia Democrats as well.” Pedini explained that, in Virginia, voters typically only heard about cannabis reforms from third-party candidates.

Nevertheless, Pedini warned that it’s ultimately a legislative decision to make these changes and that both chambers are Republican-controlled – at least for now as one power-grabbing seat is still in limbo, which could flip the House of Delegates from red to blue.

Strekal indicated that the most important player in determining broad decriminalization is the Republican Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment who plans on introducing a bill next year to decriminalize possession for first-time offenders. In an interview with WAVY’s “10 On Your Side,” Norment called it “crazy” to jail people for possessing “modest amounts” of cannabis.

“I think the issue can adequately be addressed with civil penalties rather than criminal ones. For example, if you are caught with a modest amount of marijuana, you could be ordered into drug rehabilitation, restricting a driver’s license,” he said. “If you are caught again in a certain period of time, then maybe it could be a criminal matter.”

This license issue is one that has come up before, when in March Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed legislation to end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses of individuals convicted of possession, and reimposing such penalties would be a step back with reforms potentially on the horizon.

As the Great American Cannabis Experiment enters its twenty-second year, cannabis policy is beginning to shape the political landscape – as it rightfully should. A Gallup poll last month found 64 percent support for cannabis legalization, including for the first time ever a majority of Republicans. In an American Legion poll, 83 percent of respondents supported adult-use. And polls throughout the year in Utah, Rhode Island, and Iowa show voters support reforms – be they for medical or recreational cannabis use. The issue is coming of age and could play a role – as it appears to have in New Jersey and Virginia – in the outcome of any given race, even the next presidential race in 2020.

Correction: A previous version of this article indicated Virginia’s licence suspension reform bill had not been codified; the article has been updated to reflect a court ruling which allowed the statute to take effect. 

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