Cannabis Legalization Looms Large in NJ Governor Race

Published on April 24, 2017 · Last updated July 28, 2020
Democratic candidate for New Jersey governor, Phil Murphy, addresses a gathering Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017, in Woodbridge, N.J. Gov. Chris Christie is not on the ticket in New Jersey this year, but his legacy is looming over the race to succeed him. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — The Trump administration recently warned about the potential for marijuana to lead to other drug use, but candidates for New Jersey governor are considering embracing efforts to authorize recreational use in the state.

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly’s recent comment that cannabis is a possibly dangerous gateway drug comes after Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he is “definitely not a fan” of expanded use.

The issue is currently stalled mostly because Christie has vowed to veto any effort to legalize recreational use of the drug.

Nonetheless, New Jersey’s Democratic-controlled Legislature plans to move forward with legislation and lawmakers hope Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s successor will sign it.

Christie, who is term-limited, has opposed any expansion of cannabis legalization. His term ends in January.

Industry watchers say they’re optimistic legalization will move forward, even if they are unsure about the pace.

The Issue

Legalization of recreational cannabis has had a double-life in New Jersey. The issue is currently stalled mostly because Christie has vowed to veto any effort to legalize recreational use of the drug. But lawmakers in the Democrat-led Legislature have continued to explore the issue, taking trips to Colorado to examine successes and failures and promising to introduce legislation they hope Christie’s successor will sign. Supporters see legalization as a potential new revenue stream for the state and a way to keep petty drug offenders out of the justice system. Opponents, like Christie and Kelly, see the drug as a gateway to graver addictions and more serious crimes. Still others are skeptical about full-scale recreational legalization but favors decriminalizing cannabis to keep offenders out of jail.

New Jersey currently has a medical marijuana program, enacted shortly before Christie took office in 2010. Proponents of the program say Christie could be doing more to expand the program under the law, like opening more dispensaries.

Candidate Positions and Promises

Democratic front-runner Phil Murphy has said he supports legalization. Former Clinton administration official and attorney Jim Johnson backs legalization in a “safe and regulated manner.” Democratic candidate John Wisniewski, an assemblyman, supports decriminalizing cannabis and creating a legal framework for a market. State Sen. Ray Lesniak says he backs decriminalizing marijuana but isn’t entirely convinced of full legalization.

Republican front-runner Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno’s spokesman did not respond to a request on her position. Republican candidate Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli favors decriminalizing cannabis possession for those who have small amounts, but doesn’t back full-scale legalization. He voted against bills expanding the medical marijuana program. Steven Rogers, a Republican commissioner in Nutley, opposes legalization for recreational marijuana but says he supports medical marijuana programs.

What the Experts Say

Despite the Trump administration’s position, cannabis legalization groups and lawmakers say they’re optimistic about the chances for legalization under the next governor. “We have a very solid shot,” said Scott Rudder, president of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association. Rudder sounded more optimistic about the chances for legalization under a Democratic governor but said he is hopeful that Republicans can be persuaded through sharing success stories. He cited Colorado, which has produced about $200 million in revenue for that state.

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Democratic state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, who is a leading proponent in the Legislature, says he is working on legislation that he hopes to introduce soon.

Rudder said he doubts the Trump administration has the resources or the desire to interfere with states — or potentially New Jersey — that market the drug. “We are so far down the path of millions into state coffers and thousands of jobs,” he said.

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