1/24/20 By DAN ULLOA
Jim Miller has been a pillar of cannabis reform activism in New Jersey for years, pushing for medical marijuana reform and home cultivation of cannabis, known as NJ homegrow, five years before medical marijuana reform passed in California.
He was in favor of cannabis reform when there were few willing to take that position. He started in 1991 due to the illness of his late wife Cheryl who had a severe case of Multiple Sclerosis (MS). In 1993, when Miller could not convince reporters to see Cheryl use her infused butter and didn’t know any other advocates, they resolved to take drastic action. He walked across the state pushing her wheelchair from Seaside Heights to Trenton.
“I walked across the state in 1993 from Seaside to that golden dome,” Miller said, referring to the Statehouse.
They did it in 25 hours. Miller explained that it was a 58-mile journey they completed in 25 hours. He said they went from Seaside Heights west on Rt. 37 to Rt. 9 North to Freehold to Rt. 33 West to Trenton.
“I had no cell phone or anything. Just a sign saying Medical Marijuana for MS,” Miller said. The walk was successful in generating press. The Asbury Park Press initially covered it along with a couple of local Ocean County papers. That coverage led to Channel 6 ABC News covering him as well as the now-defunct Channel 9 UPN. Despite her illness, Cheryl was always up for radical action.
“What are they going to do to me?” she said. Once, they went to Washington, DC, and stopped in front of Congressman Bob Barr’s (R-GA) office door and refused to move. Barr had made a public display of blocking funds for Washington, DC’s medical marijuana program after the city passed a ballot measure. It became a news sensation when Miller was arrested for civil disobedience.
“I’m good at slash and burn,” Miller noted.
After a while, Miller began to convince policymakers about the need for reform. He spent a great deal of time in Washington seeking meetings to persuade Members of Congress.
“And Rob Andrews was the only one who said ok. And we went to an appointment in his New Jersey Office. After about a minute, Andrews stopped me and said ‘You know when I have somebody expressing their point of view like you, I usually look at it what they want to gain. And the only thing I see Cheryl has to gain is her health,” Miller said.
Former Congressman Rob Andrews (D-NJ) represented South Jersey from 1990 to 2014. Miller said Andrews was one of the first Congressmen to change his position on medical marijuana which showed Members they could change their minds as well. They also moved Andrews’ then-Chief of Staff Bill Caruso who is now a leader of the New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform (NJUMR) coalition.
Unfortunately, after many years of activism and struggle, Cheryl passed on June 7, 2003, in his arms.
“It was actually kind of beautiful. It was an easy passing, no pain being expressed, just the two of us,” Miller said.
In November 2003, Miller co-founded the Coalition for Medical Marijuana in New Jersey (CMMNJ) with Ken Wolski. They wanted to branch out from NORML to form a group that made patient care its central cause. Since its founding, it has been a key group pushing for change in cannabis laws. His strident militancy stands in stark contrast to Wolski’s quiet leadership.
Herb Conaway and NJ Homegrow
Miller adamantly advocates for NJ homegrow for patients to grow their own cannabis since the cannabis currently sold in dispensaries is ridiculously expensive compared to that sold in the underground market.
By 2009, when the Compassionate Use of Medical Marijuana (CUMMA) Act was being debated, it looked like NJ homegrow would become law as part of the bill establishing New Jersey’s medical marijuana program. CUMMA passed the State Senate 22-16.
“All other states that had medical marijuana programs at the time also had homegrow. So, it seemed natural,” Miller said.
However, according to Miller, on June 4, 2009, Health Committee Chair Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-Burlington) blindsided many when he announced changes to the bill including the elimination of homegrow and a 10-minute discussion before voting on it would commence.
“I could feel my blood, running, everybody was numb. And it was over in short order,” Miller said. Miller noted that former Assemblymen Michael Patrick Carroll (R-Morris) and Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) along with Senator Nick Scutari (D-Union) looked astonished. He added that they had to accept the bill as it was.
“Here we are 10 years later, 13 of those 22 are still in office and haven’t said boo. It’s well-known patients cannot afford it,” Miller said.
He explained that a significant number of patients in the program die every year in part because they cannot afford cannabis sold at dispensaries.
Miller speculates that perhaps then-Governor Jon Corzine was against NJ homegrow. The reason homegrow was taken out of the bill has yet to be explained publicly.
Many legislators were worried it would fuel the underground market.
Last year in New York the state association for medical dispensaries made up of Citiva, Columbia Care, Etain, MedMen, PharmaCann, the Botanist, Acreage NY, and Vireo Health sent a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo that, among, other things, severely criticized homegrow, saying it would hurt the industry. Reform advocates across the country blasted the move as being exceedingly greedy and they had to cope with the fallout.
After years of struggle, New Jersey’s medical marijuana program is doing better than ever, and Miller remains active as a leader in the movement. And despite the hardships of fighting for so long and New Jersey’s slow progress on the issue, Miller is not disheartened.
“When I go to a dispensary, I see it through Cheryl’s eyes. For everybody’s complaints, they don’t know what’s it like,” Miller said. “I see people smiling when they leave. I notice every time they seem comforted by the little white bag they’re holding.”
When passionately articulating reform, he has a look in his eye like the painting of John Brown who raided Harper’s Ferry armory in name of the emancipation of slaves. Brown was executed for his raid prior to the Civil War and was lionized by abolitionists and civil rights leaders. He remains to this day a folk hero to some.