cannabis reform
NJDSC Progressive Caucus panel with Garden State NORML Director Charlana McKeithen

10/25/19 By DAN ULLOA

The New Jersey Democratic State Committee (NJDSC) recently held its conference in Atlantic City where Democrats gathered to celebrate past victories in electing candidates and passing bills along with raising their collective morale for the upcoming off-year elections while cannabis reform was at the front of the minds of many attending.

Cannabis reform was brought up by Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin who spoke in the morning and listed his caucus’ many accomplishments, $15 an hour among them. He went on to say that cannabis reform would happen “in the near future” to great applause from the audience sitting down at tables. 

A senior aide to the Speaker was very optimistic about cannabis reform’s passage in the Lame Duck session after the elections. He said Coughlin wanted to address historic injustice but added the Senate is the problem. “We had the votes in the Assembly,” Coughlin had mentioned.

I went in part to make a cannabis reform a major issue. To do so, I put it on the agenda of a panel I moderated as Co-Chair of the Progressive Caucus of the NJDSC, an office I had been offered earlier that year and accepted. 

The speaker for the issue, Charlena McKeithen, Executive Director of Garden State NJ of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). Even though legalization was near, many are still getting arrested she told the crowd.

“We have to stop arrests right now,” McKeithen said. She continued and commended Murphy for vetoing the expungement bill, pushing auto-expungement which got a good reception from the audience. She advocated at the very least for decriminalization and described people who needed it to live their daily lives. The room was very receptive to her message of cannabis reform. 

The big law firms in New Jersey well connected to the Party are all setting up cannabis reform practices to take advantage of the races for medical dispensary licenses and cannabis reform. For example, the Hunterdon County Democratic Chair Arlene Quinones Perez of DeCotiis, FitzPatrick, Cole & Giblin has spoken at a number of cannabis events.

I saw an old acquaintance who as an Assembly aide said he had written a key criminal justice aspect initially but was no longer involved in cannabis reform, even though the extremely well-connected firm he worked for had a good client in the industry.

While Senator Cory Booker was there taking a break from his presidential bid and spoke to the adoring crowd on a number of issues, I don’t think he mentioned cannabis reform nor the criminal justice reform he has championed.

The Politics of Politics w/o Cannabis Reform

Even though it was the grand conference of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, George Norcross III, the boss of South Jersey who cut deals with Christie and helped overthrow former State President Dick Codey and former Speaker Vinny Prieto, was nowhere to be seen. 

“He never goes. He’s too cool for school,” said a prominent progressive leader whose table was sporting Norcross dollars on it outside the main hall. Norcross didn’t need to be there. He operates behind closed doors. Even though he was the former Chairman of the Camden Democrats, his only title now in the Party is DNC committeeman. 

Many believed that intra-party politics are to blame for the failure of cannabis reform in March.

And unfortunately, neither Sweeney nor the Senate Judiciary Chair Nick Scutari nor the swing legislators were at the conference to be lobbied.

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