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Cannabis Reform and Politics at New Jersey Democrats Conference

The New Jersey Democrats recently held its conference in Atlantic City, where they gathered to celebrate past victories in electing candidates and passing bills, raising their morale for the upcoming off-year elections while cannabis reform was at the front of the minds of many attending.

Cannabis Reform

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 said 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. 

Social Justice and Cannabis

The speaker for the issue was 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. They can take advantage of the races for medical dispensary licenses and cannabis reform. For example, Hunterdon County Democratic Chair Arlene Quinones Perez of DeCotiis, FitzPatrick, Cole & Giblin has spoken at several cannabis events.

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

Senator Cory Booker was there taking a break from his presidential bid and spoke to the adoring crowd. He didn’t mention cannabis reform nor the criminal justice reform he has championed.

New Jersey Democrats Politics

It was the grand conference of the New Jersey Democrats. However, George Norcross III, the boss of South Jersey, was nowhere to be seen. He cut deals with Christie and helped overthrow former State President Dick Codey and former Speaker Vinny Prieto,

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

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

Unfortunately, neither Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) nor Judiciary Chair Nick Scutari (D-Union) nor the swing legislators were at the conference to be lobbied.

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