With his victory over Lt. Gov Kim Guadagno, Democratic candidate Phil Murphy secured his title as the Garden State governor for the next four years. The cannabis industry is paying close attention to Governor-elect Murphy, who signaled during the campaign that he would support measures to legalize cannabis for recreational adult use. If so, New Jersey will be the first state to legalize cannabis through the legislature.
What can we expect to happen next? Will the Garden State look a whole lot greener right after the inauguration? To find out, we spoke with Bill Caruso, co-founder of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform and one of New Jersey’s top cannabis lobbyists.
CannaContent: Tell us a bit about yourself, your background working with the legislature and your familiarity with cannabis.
Bill Caruso: I’m 43 years old. I’ve worked in the governmental space for more than 20 years. I started as a congressional aide and then became chief of staff to a U.S. congressman. I’ve spent a lot of time in the legislative space at the federal and state levels. I’ve mostly focused on medicinal, but I’ve addressed legal recreational cannabis discussions as well. I’ve been a part of crafting policy, researching and securing votes [for pro-cannabis legislation].
CannaContent: What are some of the recent changes in attitude toward cannabis in New Jersey? Is there any legislation on the table?
In the 2000s, there was a lot of change in the medicinal [cannabis] space. It was an unpopular place to be in late ’90s and early 2000s; it was nowhere close to where it is today. As a young staffer researching and understanding this from a viable policy initiative and not a fringe element, I transitioned to the state legislature in 2008… and helped to write the state’s first medicinal law.
Since around 2013 — and formally in 2014 when we began to publicize ourselves – my organization, New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform (NJUMR), has been driving the effort to legalize cannabis. At first, we were almost getting laughed at, but there are many more friendly faces around the table today.
In terms of current legislation, we know that [Democratic State Senator] Nicholas Scutari, a longtime advocate for legal recreational cannabis for adults, has prepared a bill. Reed Gusciora (D-15), an assemblyman from the Trenton area, is likely to sponsor a version in the Assembly. We’re working on something now which will be similar… to Scutari’s.
CannaContent: Do you expect Sen. Scutari’s bill to serve as the model for any legislative legalization campaign? What are the aspects of this proposal which interest you most?
BC: Hat tip to him on this: some of the best ideas are robbed from other places. He really took time to research what other jurisdictions have done. That approach is the right approach. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here. It’s helpful when you can point to other states and explain why it makes sense. From that standpoint, I think he’s done really well; a lot of good research has gone into this bill and I think we can hold it up as a model because it incorporates many different good ideas.
CannaContent: Do you think a legislative push to legalize cannabis is likely, and if it’s likely, how soon do you think we may see it?
BC: Phil Murphy will be sworn in around mid-January. He made this a first 100 days priority, and that makes sense because the budget is due on June 30th for this fiscal year. Phil Murphy is going to use a lot of capital to get this done; there are Scutari’s and Gusciora’s drafted and forthcoming legislation, then Murphy would have his own design as the executive. I would say that a legalization bill will be moving in the legislature sometime between January and June 30th, 2018.
We have work to do, that’s for sure. This bill isn’t going to pass on its own. The governor would be able to use some capital, and the pressure of the budget period means people will want to trade different things, they’ll want something else in exchange for supporting the bill. There are a variety of different constituencies that must be dealt with, placated, responded to, and the like. There’s a lot of education that still needs to continue as well. There are a lot of misconceptions out there about cannabis as a “gateway drug” and concerns about children accessing cannabis. I and many others continue to do the work to undo decades of misinformation. Thankfully, facts are on our side.
CannaContent: There’s certainly work to be done, and New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform has been at the forefront of that work in New Jersey for several years now. How did the organization begin?
BC: I helped to found NJUMR. I got out of government in 2013 and became a member of Archer and Greiner; I started their first lobbying practice there. We were hard-charging lawyer lobbyists, but I knew something was missing in terms of what I like to do in advocacy and policy. I thought cannabis was an issue I could lend some time and attention to. I had some friends involved, like the executive director of NJ NORML, the policy director at ACLU, and a friend at the NAACP. We concluded that maybe we should start something. In the absence of somebody driving this and people telling us it was too soon, we decided to do it anyway. We used my contacts in legislature, business and media to educate people and lend credence to the subject [of cannabis legalization].
CannaContent: Which policies does NJUMR advocate for?
We’re fighting for legalization. We’re fighting for ending incarceration for drug offenses, which disproportionately affects minorities. We’re also focused on having fair and equitable processes for distribution of licenses when legalization occurs. There are a lot of platforms on which to advocate for legal cannabis, mostly on racial and social justice. I think we drove New Jersey to being one of the next states to move to legalize.
On the medicinal side, we defined the benefits. We’ve talked about racial and social justice. We’ve debunked reefer madness related to “gateway drugs” with science, medical professionals and law enforcement professionals. We’ve been able to whet appetite of a cash-strapped legislature. This has the potential… to generate at least $300 million annually in state tax revenue. When we started talking about that, a lot of heads turned in the legislature. It’s a whole new economy.
CannaContent: What potential does the Garden State hold for the cannabis industry? What do you think the cannabis industry offers New Jersey in return?
BC: First and foremost, this isn’t a pot shop on every corner. What I see is the nexus between research, development, agriculture and all the things New Jersey has to offer. Jersey is literally the Garden State; we have phenomenal agriculture and farming roots and history. We have some of the foremost leaders in agricultural science. There absolutely could be a mutual benefit between what New Jersey is already doing and what cannabis can bring to the state.
New Jersey has a rich history with pharmaceutical companies. We’re one of the leading pharma states in the nation. We’ve since bled out a bit, but this gives us the ability to recapture some of that strength. A legal cannabis economy sends a message to companies to come to Jersey, partner with our research institutions and phenomenal healthcare facilities and become a 21st-century laboratory for cannabis derived medicines.
Factor in New Jeresy’s phenomenal access to capital — it’s a very wealthy state with a lot of investment opportunity. There’s also access to transportation. We are a hub; we’re one of the most transited states in the nation. And that’s all for the future because we can’t go outside borders right now, but to have the ability down the line makes this a great place to locate a cannabis company.
CannaContent: Finally, considering all the issues surrounding cannabis legalization – economic, social justice, political – what do you find most compelling about the argument in favor of legalization?
BC: The No. 1 thing is that almost everything we’ve learned about this plant has been wrong. Debunking the myths of marijuana is important and we’re seeing that happen right now. It’s opening the door to so many new approaches to cannabis, whether it’s the profound benefits derived from cannabis in general or cannabis-derived medicines. Also, factor in the wasted opportunities because we’re locking up so many people that could be productive members of society. And then we start looking at this outward migration of talent in our state because we don’t have anything exciting and new. We’re losing our core economy, our innovation infrastructure. Legalizing cannabis is a catalyst to reverse that.