Incoming NJ Gov. Murphy names head of cannabis trade group as chief of staff

Pete Cammarano founded the New Jersey Cannabis Industry Association

TRENTON, N.J. — The Garden State could soon become a bit more green.

Proponents of legalized marijuana in New Jersey are lining up in the aftermath of Phil Murphy’s election as governor, anticipating no-questions-asked pot sales to adults by late next year with an ally in the governor’s office.

Murphy has named the head of a marijuana trade group as his chief of staff, and a new association for marijuana retailers has formed. The governor-elect vowed during his campaign to legalize the drug, and the growing industry is counting on him to quickly make good on the pledge.

“We have significant momentum,” said Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union County, the sponsor of a marijuana bill. “It’s not just me anymore. People have come around to the idea that this takes drug dealers off the streets and would mean new revenue. There’s a million reasons to do this.”

Voters in eight states and the District of Columbia have approved ballot measures since 2012 allowing recreational use of marijuana, which remains illegal under federal law. New Jersey could be the first state to legalize marijuana through legislation, although Vermont lawmakers are considering a similar measure.

In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie has been a staunch opponent of permitting marijuana use, calling supporters “crazy liberals” who want to “poison our kids.” Scutari said he has held back on calling for a vote on his bill, which was introduced in May, in anticipation of a Christie veto.

But with Murphy taking office in January, Scutari said, he expects movement on his bill early in the new governor’s term, a position echoed by state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who has been elected to a new term leading the upper chamber.

Murphy spoke in favor of allowing adults 21 and over to consume marijuana for recreational purposes, saying current laws discriminate against African-Americans and cost $143 million a year to enforce.

“The criminalization of marijuana has only served to clog our courts and cloud people’s futures, so we will legalize marijuana,” Murphy said in his primary-night victory speech in June. “And while there are financial benefits, this is overwhelmingly about doing what is right and just.”

In an editorial board meeting at The Record in October, the Democrat said his focus was on properly regulating marijuana, not on whether it should be permitted in New Jersey.

“You’ve got to do this right. And getting this right — we’re spending an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out how to get it right as opposed to whether or not we’re convinced this is a social justice issue or not,” Murphy said. “I’m convinced of the latter.”

Pete Cammarano, whom Murphy named as chief of staff, founded the New Jersey Cannabis Industry Association. Cammarano did not respond to a phone call and an emailed request for comment.

The association and the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project registered to lobby in New Jersey this year, while the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws has been pushing to legalize marijuana in the state since the 1990s. New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, a coalition including the ACLU and NAACP, has been active since 2015. Bill Caruso, a lawyer who sits on the group’s steering committee, said the state now “sits on the doorstep of legalization.”

The group now is pushing to expunge prior criminal convictions for marijuana possession, to allow people to grow limited amounts of marijuana at home, to ensure that licensing requirements don’t bar lower-income people from operating dispensaries, and to guarantee that tax revenue from sales is returned to lower-income communities, said Dianna Houenou, the New Jersey ACLU’s marijuana policy liaison.

The New Jersey Marijuana Retailers Association formed this month to represent the interests of future dispensaries.

“We do feel that we have the wind to our backs on this,” said Juan Carlos Negrin, a liquor store owner who serves as the retail group’s president.

State Sen. Joe Pennacchio, R-Morris County, decried what he called the “mad dash” to legalize marijuana in New Jersey, saying it would lead to an increase in traffic accidents caused by drugged drivers.

“Governor-elect Murphy will be putting the lives of New Jersey citizens at risk, just so he can call himself an ‘activist governor,'” Pennacchio said in a statement released by the Republican caucus. “I urge my colleagues in the Legislature to put the brakes on legalization before it’s too late.”

Kate Bell, who is leading the Marijuana Policy Project’s efforts in New Jersey, said Murphy was the first major-party gubernatorial candidate in the U.S. to make legalization a major component of his platform.

“There are years of data and experience that New Jersey can draw from, so that the state doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Bell said.

Scutari’s bill would impose a 7 percent sales tax on marijuana and marijuana products, escalating to 25 percent after five years. The senator said the state would realize $300 million to $500 million a year in new tax revenue after the tax is fully phased in. Proponents say New Jersey could see $2 billion to $3 billion in annual marijuana sales, based on the experiences of other states that have legalized the drug.

Scutari said he and Cammarano visited Colorado last year to learn from the state’s experiences with recreational marijuana. One lesson was that permitting people to grow their own plants would lead to disputes and regulatory headaches, Scutari said.

The top Republican in the state Senate, Tom Kean of Union County, said that while he remains personally opposed to legalizing marijuana, he expects that other Republican lawmakers would “vote their consciences on that.”

“I think the health effects are significant on both brain development and other issues,” Kean said.

Under current law, a New Jersey resident caught in possession of 50 grams or less of marijuana is subject to as much as six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. State lawmakers in 2008 approved marijuana for medical use in New Jersey. Since the state’s medical marijuana registry began in 2012, more than 12,000 patients have received licenses, according to a 2016 report from the state Health Department.

Bell said New Jersey’s medical program is among the most restrictive in the country. Legalizing recreational use would bring down prices, thereby benefiting people who take marijuana for pain and other medical reasons, she said.

Information from The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)