On Tuesday, New Jersey voters, by roughly a 2 to 1 margin, voted to “erase our state’s broken marijuana laws and to legalize adult use marijuana,” New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said during a news conference on Friday. Murphy, who said that he voted for the measure to legalize, held the conference to name two top officials of the state’s cannabis regulatory body. Now comes the work to “ensure that it is implemented fairly, justly, and swiftly,” Murphy said.
Also on Friday, Senator Nicholas Scutari, an outspoken supporter of cannabis law reform in the state, announced the introduction of S-21, a bill that will create the regulatory framework for the state’s cannabis industry. The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to take up the bill on Monday.
Voters in five states saw medical or adult use ballot measures on Election Day, with all of them passing: New Jersey (adult use), Arizona (adult use), Montana (adult use), Mississippi (medical use), and South Dakota (both). New Jersey has, so far, been the fastest to move toward implementation of their program.
In a statement, Scutari touted New Jersey’s position as “the largest state in the Northeast to legalize the recreational use of marijuana,” and said that the cannabis industry would create jobs and “generate economic growth at a time when it is desperately needed.” Scutari added that New Jersey would lead in “social justice reforms.”
Murphy also focused on social justice reforms during his news conference.
“We now join the growing number of states that have come to the rightful conclusion that our marijuana laws had done more harm than good, had ruined more futures than they had helped, and hurt many communities by saddling black and brown people, predominantly young men, with an arrest and a host of collateral consequences for nonviolent offenses,” Murphy said.
Murphy announced that Dianna Houenou will serve as chair of New Jersey’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC), the body that will regulate both medical and adult use programs. Houenou has served in Murphy’s office as associate counsel and senior policy adviser, where she worked on issues like expungement legislation and broader criminal justice reform. She was previously a policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.
“Her commitment to doing what is right and to leaving no one behind has powered our criminal justice reform agenda, and I am immensely proud that she will be continuing that commitment as Chair of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission,” Murphy said during the news conference.
Houenou said that she was “incredibly proud to join in this historic voting effort,” and that when she cast her vote in favor of legalization, it was “truly an emotional moment.”
“I took stock of the years spent fighting for that very moment,” she said. “I reflected on all the people I met along the way who inspired me to keep demanding that racial justice remain at the heart of the legalization movement and the people whose lives were turned upside down by laws rooted in deliberate attempts to criminalize black and brown communities.”
Houenou shared her vision for New Jersey’s cannabis program, saying that she “prioritizes equity and integrity” for both adult and medical use.
“I intentionally described these as twin values because I believe you cannot have one without the other. For the cannabis industry to have integrity, it must be equitable. It must protect patient access, reflect the diversity of the state, and reinvest revenues into the communities most harmed by prohibition, from promoting inclusion among license and permit holders, to making affirmative investments in the future of our communities of color,” Houenou said.
States like Illinois that legalized cannabis more recently have focused on equity very early in the regulatory process. Conversely, Colorado lawmakers and regulators have in the past year pushed to retroactively create a more equitable industry in the state, passing legislation and hosting lengthy workshops to debate and discuss that future of equity in Colorado.
Also on Friday, Murphy named Jeff Brown as the executive director of the CRC. Brown currently serves as assistant commissioner of the Division of Medicinal Marijuana, where he’s been since 2018. Brown worked on the “overhaul and expansion” of the state’s medical cannabis program.
“We’ve added new conditions that can be treated with medical cannabis, new dispensaries, new products, and it made it dramatically easier to be a patient in New Jersey. Because of our reforms, we will surpass 100,000 patients this month and our work is not even close to being done,” Brown said. “We need to continue to expand the market. We need to continue to add new products, and we need to continue to break down barriers for patients and their loved ones.”
Brown, too, is focused on equity as the adult use program and market takes shape. Brown added that state lawmakers and regulators must legalize “in a way that acknowledges and provides opportunities for people in communities that paid a higher price in the failed war on drugs. The choices we make in the early days of the commission will set the stage for years and decades to come. And if social justice and racial justice is not at the core of what we do of every decision we make, then we are not doing our job.”
Later, Murphy fielded questions from reporters, during which the governor was asked several questions on the specifics of social justice, and how, exactly, regulators plan to use cannabis revenue to reinvest in communities disproportionately harmed by enforcement of cannabis laws.
“I don’t want to jump the gun on the legislation. We’re working quite well with the legislature on this,” Murphy said. “It does mean equity. We just had a little huddle backstage and I said ‘job number one, and I think we’re in violent agreement, is equity here.’ And equity will evidence itself in a whole range of different ways. Who gets the licenses, where they’re located.”
Houenou added her thoughts on the future of equity in New Jersey, emphasizing that equity isn’t just about representation and inclusion for different types of operators in the state’s cannabis industry, but also about “balancing between folks who have access to the large corporations, to the smaller businesses,” and ensuring that communities that have faced outsized harms are “restored.”
“It’s not just about the arrests that have been made and the thousands that are made each year,” she said, adding that regulators also need to provide economic opportunities and equitable education.
“All of these options are on the table,” Houenou said, adding that the CRC will be “looking to other states to learn from their lessons and see what good things are happening elsewhere that we can bring here to New Jersey, how we can avoid any pitfalls that they’ve experienced and really create something beautiful and wonderful for our New Jerseyans.”
Murphy, Houenou, and Brown were also asked about expungement of cannabis-related records. Murphy referenced a statement made by Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, which noted that law enforcement officers and prosecutors should be “reminded of their broad discretion when handling low level marijuana offenses and are encouraged to exercise it consistent with existing guidance from this office.” Grewal also wrote that if legislation is enacted that creates the framework for adult use cannabis, “we will promptly provide additional guidance to immediately address issues of fairness and retroactivity, among other topics.”
Murphy declined to give specifics on expungement.
“I’ve said everything I’m going to say. The attorney general made his statement. We’re going to work on the legislation,” after which, Murphy added, “we’ll have a lot more guidance.”
Lawmakers voted in December, 49-21-1 in the Assembly and 24-16 in the Senate, to send legalization to voters. The December decision came after lawmakers failed in somewhat dramatic fashion last March to agree on legalization. At the time, Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney said that lawmakers changing votes “was like Whac-A-Mole,” and that some lawmakers are “just philosophically opposed.”
On the topic of the lawmakers’ failed attempt to pass a legalization bill, Murphy said on Friday,“History is rarely made at the very first attempt. History is often a bumpy road of fits and starts of progress and setbacks. But eventually barriers do fall to those who are committed to breaking them down.”