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New Jersey’s Primary Was a Huge Win for Legalization. Here’s Why

Last night we learned which candidates will vie to replace New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in November’s gubernatorial election. Democrats selected former US ambassador and Goldman Sachs alum Phil Murphy, while Republicans tapped current Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno, Christie’s second-in-command.

'We will legalize marijuana...This is about doing what is right and just.'

In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans two-to-one, Murphy is the heavy favorite to win in November.

Gov. Christie is among the loudest anti-cannabis voices in the nation and in seven months he’ll be out of office. Which means prospects for major cannabis reforms can only get better.


“Oh definitely,” Murphy spokesman Derek Roseman told Leafly earlier today. “One major hurdle cleared in having a nominee [like Murphy] who recognizes that our current laws have not served us as a society.”

Murphy’s comments in victory underscored that sentiment.

‘Criminalization has only clogged our courts’

“The criminalization of marijuana has only served to clog our courts and cloud people’s futures, so we will legalize marijuana,” Murphy told a cheering crowd. “And while there are financial benefits, this is overwhelmingly about doing what is right and just.”

For her part, Lt Governor Guadagno wouldn’t push to legalize the adult use of cannabis.

Republican Guadagno: Decrim first.

Republican Guadagno: Decrim first.

She did say, however, that “we should decriminalize it” during a recent primary debate. Acknowledging the huge disparity in cannabis arrests involving people of color, Guadagno said “no one should suffer because of the color of their skin or because of their social background or because they were picked up with a small quantity.”

Major Progress, Post-Christie

After eight years of Chris Christie’s retrograde approach, even Guadagno’s more modest approach represents major progress.

'No one should suffer...because of a small quantity' of cannabis.

“Last night’s primary election moved NJ one step closer to the end of Governor Christie’s term and toward cannabis legalization in the Garden State,” Bill Caruso of NJ United for Marijuana Reform told Leafly. “Cannabis legalization may not be on the ballot this fall in New Jersey, but it will likely play a major part in in this upcoming election.”

That was a common sentiment in Trenton as the dust settled on yesterday’s results.

“Regardless of how you voted, last night was a victory for expanding access to cannabis in New Jersey,” Scott Rudder, President of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association told Leafly. “Both Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno and Phil Murphy support expanding access to medical cannabis and decriminalization.”

The similarities end there, though.

“Phil Murphy envisions a much larger footprint for the cannabis industry through his consistent and thoughtful approach to legalizing cannabis for adult-use,” Rudder added. “Murphy understands that part of creating greater access includes legalization for adults and fostering an industry that will create tens of thousands of jobs, support small businesses, generate new revenue and strengthen our economy.”

Scutari Bill: Ready to Move

Senator Nicholas P. Scutari (D-Union) chairs NJ’s Senate Judiciary Committee. He sponsored New Jersey’s medical marijuana law and led a delegation of state lawmakers on a fact-finding tour of Colorado last year.

“There is widespread public support both in New Jersey and across the country for legalizing marijuana,” Scutari told Leafly. “In New Jersey, we now have a Democratic nominee, who I believe will be our next governor, who supports legalization. That’s why it is so important that we begin shaping our recreational marijuana program now, so that we are prepared to move forward with a program that ends the prohibition on marijuana and that treats our residents fairly and humanely. We’ve already done extensive research on how legal cannabis programs are faring in other states and are continuing the process of working on legislation to create the best recreational marijuana program for New Jersey.”

Hey Now, Not So Fast

Rider University political scientist Ben Dworkin was circumspect about the possibility of rapid reforms.

“It’s clear that marijuana legalization is going to be on the agenda of a Democratic administration,” Dworkin told Leafly. “But advocates will still face resistance and the process may be slowed significantly.  For example, there may be initial steps like the expansion of medical marijuana dispensaries that will be needed.”

There’s still time to claim bragging rights as the first state to legislatively overturn prohibition (thanks Vermont), but a methodical approach gives time to refine Scutari’s legislation.

“Sen. Scutari’s legalization bill doesn’t permit home grow and that’s particularly burdensome for medical consumers like my daughter Tuffy,” Camden advocate Ricardo Rivera told Leafly. “I look forward to spending the next several months educating both candidates why home grow provisions are so critically important.”

New Jersey Man (Kind of) Wins Medical Marijuana Insurance Coverage

The Tea Party Option

Conservative Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll (R-Morris) is New Jersey’s top Tea Partier. He’s got legislation of his own. His wide-ranging legalization bill has it all: homegrow, expungements, the works.

“The proposal I (drafted) simply deletes ALL marijuana rules and laws, save the rule that you have to be 19. Other than that, anything goes. I wanted to treat it more like tomatoes than booze. Our cops have better things to do with their time than police gardening.”

Given NJ’s Garden State pedigree, it’s not a stretch.

Progressive Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) sponsored NJ’s medical cannabis law. To Gusciora, having candidates and politicians from both parties pushing reforms is novel and noteworthy.

“I think we’ll remember the 2017 election as the one that made marijuana legalization politically and socially feasible,” Gusciora told Leafly.

Jay Lassiter's Bio Image
Jay Lassiter

Jay has been covering New Jersey politics since 2005, when he founded a political journalism site and became the first credentialed statehouse blogger in America. He currently reports on politics for Leafly and the New York Observer.

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