Michael Chazukow ran for town council in West Milford as a pro-cannabis Republican after being a cannabis activist and won. He took office last night.
He is a former National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) leader in New Jersey. Chazukow founded Ramapo College NJ (RCNJ) NORML in 2010, and he was on the board of NORML NJ for many years.
Chazukow was raised in West Milford.
He has advocated for pro-cannabis legalization from a conservative perspective, believing it to be a natural connection regarding exercising personal freedom. Chazukow always saw the possession arrests as an injustice.
“It doesn’t hurt anybody. The punishment had been disproportional unfair treatment of something that was normalized for some time in our community. There was a really wink wink, nod, nod, attitude about it. Most people realize it doesn’t do any harm,” Chazukow explained. “I genuinely think there are positives from having a regulated structure, embracing the type of market we’re talking about.”
Chazukow started as a pro-cannabis advocate in 2009 when he got laid off during the Great Recession. He went back to college at Ramapo to study law and society. Around then, Chazukow met Evan Nison, who became active in cannabis legalization as the NORML NJ leader. They began collecting petitions in East Brunswick and New Brunswick in the summer of 2009.
Among the locations they sought to gather petitions was the East Brunswick library.
“It was great,” Chazukow said. He said they once saw an old man walking in with his granddaughter and asked him if he would like to sign a petition to reduce penalties for small amounts of possession of marijuana?
“No! You people should be shot!” the old man exclaimed.
Unfortunately, efforts to utilize East Brunswick and New Brunswick’s ability to hold a municipal referendum failed.
In 2010, he founded the Ramapo College chapter of NORML. Ramapo gave them an award for “Outstanding New Club.” Chazukow was able to obtain funds to go to a NORML conference in Colorado where he met then-Congressman and now Governor Jared Polis (D), who has been a staunch cannabis advocate.
After college, he was on the NORML NJ board for many years, and the college chapter continued. However, during the Christie years, cannabis advocacy was very difficult due to Christie’s staunch opposition. Once Murphy came in, everything moved rather quickly, if not deliberately, he said.
“It’s quite interesting where we find ourselves,” Chazukow said.
From his cannabis advocacy, he became interested in other issues. It seemed like a natural transition after working to help people politically.
“That’s how I got involved, helping people, meeting people, contributing to the community. People don’t just care about one issue,” he said.
Chazukow continued to get involved in politics via the Libertarian Party, which supports cannabis reform. He was a three-time Libertarian candidate for West Milford Council in 2016, 2017, and 2018. When running as a Libertarian, Chazukow presented a model municipal legalization resolution. However, the council declined to take it up.
After running as a Libertarian, he switched to the Republican Party and received the nomination to run last year.
“It was really surreal,” Chazukow said about becoming a candidate. “With COVID, everything was changed.”
He then became the only candidate in the race and ran unopposed, something he called a “dubious honor”.
Between Chazukow’s advocacy and the changing times, the West Milford Republicans endorsed a pro-cannabis resolution before he became a candidate.
He called that “super exciting.”
The West Milford pro-cannabis resolution passed the council before he was sworn in.
“As an advocate, that’s a win,” he said.
“Even with the frustration going on today, I can’t help but be optimistic about the future,” Chazukow said about the post-referendum legalization process.
He described himself as “giddy” regarding the advent of adult-use legalization.
Chazukow said that over half of the town voted in favor of the referendum while far fewer voted against it.
“That’s a mandate from your constituents,” he noted.
The Highlands Act makes it difficult to establish a business in West Milford since it protects the environment in that area and discourages development. But one that takes an existing space should not be as much a problem. Thus, it should not be difficult for a dispensary or lounge seeking to utilize an existing storefront to open in town.
He noted need the Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC) needs to give guidance first before such businesses can be approved. It still needs three more Commissioners to even start to establish itself.
Chazukow acknowledged that since he is more acquainted than anyone else in West Milford on the issue, and figures people inquiring about licenses would be directed to him.