Marijuana Is A Big Issue In Next Month’s Elections
In one month, voters in two states will decide, among other things, what kind of marijuana policies they want for their communities.
New Jersey and Virginia are the only two states holding gubernatorial elections this year, and the major party nominees in both races have all called for some measure of marijuana law reform.
Here’s a look at where the candidates stand…
IN BRIEF: Democratic nominee Phil Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany, wants to make the Garden State the next to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana. Republican nominee, current Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, opposes legalization but supports decriminalizing possession and expanding the state’s current medical cannabis law.
PHIL MURPHY – Democrat
Murphy included a call for legalization during his primary election victory speech in June.
“The criminalization of marijuana has only served to clog our courts and cloud people’s futures, so we will legalize marijuana,” he said. “And while there are financial benefits, this is overwhelmingly about doing what is right and just.” He also pledged in the speech to end mass incarceration and “eliminate prisons for profit.”
On his campaign website, Murphy pledges to “legalize marijuana so police can focus resources on violent crimes.”
In a gubernatorial candidates’ forum he said that while legalization will generate tax revenue, his primary reason for supporting the policy is “a social justice reason.” He also alleged that the administration of current Gov. Chris Christie (R) has “gummed up” the state’s medical cannabis program.
In a general election debate, he said that legalizing cannabis should be part of “comprehensive criminal justice reform” and described ending prohibition as a “social justice” issue, citing his role as a national NAACP board member.
In another general election debate, Murphy said decriminalization isn’t enough because “the drug industry stays underground, run by the same people and it’s unregulated, so therefore minors in particular are exposed to that. But set aside the fact you don’t earn the tax revenue, which is also a reality, the fact is it remains the wild west.”
Murphy made his support for legalization clear during his primary election campaign, and often tweeted about the issue.
NJ's marijuana laws cost $143M/yr & come w a 3:1 racial disparity in arrests. As gov, Phil will legalize/tax marijuana & break this cycle. https://t.co/DIm4nRV6JH
— Phil Murphy (@PhilMurphyNJ) June 16, 2017
"I will seek to legalize marijuana & eliminate the more than 24k low-level drug arrests that bog down the courts and hurt future prospects."
— Phil Murphy (@PhilMurphyNJ) February 27, 2017
On Marijuana legalization: "I believe it's important as a social justice issue." #murphy4nj pic.twitter.com/hlNQsNjEZv
— Phil Murphy (@PhilMurphyNJ) April 27, 2017
“I was never ‘hell no,’ but I’ve spent a lot of time on it. And I have, without question, come to a place where I wasn’t three and a half years ago,” Murphy said in a New York Times interview about his evolution on marijuana. “You can’t have that many young people of color doing time on stupid drug crimes.”
KIM GUADAGNO – Republican
During a primary debate this year, Guadagno made it clear that she opposes legalization but does support some cannabis reforms.
“I have personal experience about what exactly happens to somebody who drives while they’re high, which is why I would oppose legalization of marijuana,” she said, noting that her son went to college in Colorado. “Having said that, however, I completely agree that we should decriminalize it. Because no one should suffer because of the color of their skin or because of their social background or because they were picked up with a small quantity. What that quantity is is up for argument.”
On medical cannabis, Guadagno said the state should “streamline” access and “make it easier for people that have doctors’ notes to get it and we need to provide it to children that need it the most.”
But she said that full marijuana legalization would put the state at risk of federal interference.
In a gubernatorial candidates’ forum she said legalizing marijuana would “put a whole generation of children at risk” and that ending prohibition would give her 17-year-old son an “opportunity” to use cannabis.
During a general election debate, Guadagno said she is “wholly opposed” to ending prohibition, which she described as “legalizing drug dealers.” But she said decriminalization “would solve the social justice issue.” And she would “expand the medical marijuana program,” adding: “It’s onerous, it’s hard to work with, it’s not available to those it should be made available to.”
In another general election debate, she said she won’t legalize marijuana because she’s concerned about intoxicated driving and access to kids. “I don’t want our children, I don’t want our people to walk down the street and buy a pack of cigarettes and be drug dealers,” she said.
CONTEXT: Legislative leaders in New Jersey have indicated they are prepared to enact legalization as soon as a supportive governor is seated. Currently Gov. Chris Christie (R), who is term-limited and cannot run again, is one of the nation’s most prominent opponents of ending cannabis prohibition.
IN BRIEF: Democratic nominee, current Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, supports decriminalizing marijuana and expanding medical cannabis access. Republican nominee Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, doesn’t support those outright changes but has said he supports policies that would reduce marijuana arrests as well as enacting a more limited expansion of the state’s current low-THC medical cannabis law.
RALPH NORTHAM – Democrat
Northam has made marijuana law reform a centerpiece of his campaign, often describing the issue in racial justice terms.
“We need to change sentencing laws that disproportionately hurt people of color. One of the best ways to do this is to decriminalize marijuana,” he wrote in a blog post early this year. “African Americans are 2.8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Virginia. The Commonwealth spends more than $67 million on marijuana enforcement — money that could be better spent on rehabilitation.”
As a physician, Northam is “increasingly convinced by the data showing potential health benefits of marijuana, such as pain relief, drug-resistant epilepsy, and treatment for PTSD,” his campaign website says. “By decriminalizing it, our researchers can better study the plant so doctors can more effectively prescribe drugs made from it.”
The lieutenant governor also sent a letter to the Virginia State Crime Commission, which is currently conducting a review of the effects of potential marijuana decriminalization. “Virginia spends $67 million on marijuana enforcement – enough to open up another 13,000 pre-K spots for children,” Northam wrote. “African Americans are nearly 3 times as likely to get arrested for simple possession of marijuana and sentencing guidelines that include jail time can all too often begin a dangerous cycle of recidivism.”
During a debate, Notham mentioned that his father is a judge while making a point about the cost of enforcing marijuana laws.
Northam has tweeted about cannabis reform a number of times.
Decriminalizing marijuana would be a good step toward helping to correct systematic racism in our justice system. https://t.co/5R7YxBJi10
— Ralph Northam (@RalphNortham) July 27, 2017
African Americans are 2.8x more likely to be arrested for marijuana than white people. Marijuana decriminalization is a racial justice issue pic.twitter.com/kmKiWul1pE
— Ralph Northam (@RalphNortham) April 5, 2017
Current marijuana laws are costly and hurt communities of color. That’s why I believe in decriminalizing it. https://t.co/tVYs3hpwX0
— Ralph Northam (@RalphNortham) August 9, 2017
Northam says he “often” encounters patients who benefit from medical marijuana, and he released a campaign ad telling the story of a young constituent of his for whom he helped gain cannabis access.
As Haley's doctor, Ralph knew that access to medical marijuana was one of her best chances at a better life. pic.twitter.com/03WaKSYWLc
— Ralph Northam (@RalphNortham) April 19, 2017
Additionally, Northam supports federal cannabis rescheduling. “What would happen after that is marijuana would be reclassified and then we can look at medicinal uses,” he told HuffPost. “And the point I like to make to people is there are probably around 100 or more medicines we use routinely that come from plants. And so there are many potential uses for marijuana.”
He also backs allowing hemp cultivation. “A Northam administration will support new efforts to bring Virginia products to market, including industrial hemp processing,” his campaign website says. “Several of our key public institutions, including Virginia State University, Virginia Tech, University of Virginia and James Madison University, are conducting field research on industrial hemp [and] Virginia could explore workarounds to increase access to hemp for private growers. Additionally, at the federal level, Ralph supports the removal of industrial hemp from the Controlled Substances Act of 1970… As part of Ralph’s economic development plan, he will continue efforts to recruit an industrial hemp processor for when then federal law changes.”
ED GILLESPIE – Republican
At the start of the campaign Gillespie wasn’t on record in favor of any changes to marijuana laws. But Northam’s reform advocacy, and the response it has generated, has apparently influenced the Republican to look more seriously at the issue.
Last month Gillespie rolled out a criminal justice reform plan that includes a “Three Strikes and You’re In” policy that would allow people arrested for marijuana possession to avoid criminal charges until their third police encounter.
“This policy will reduce the number of Virginians who enter the criminal justice system and help to get treatment to more people,” Gillespie’s plan says. “Data show significant racial disparities in marijuana charges, this policy will help address them by providing opportunities to avoid entry into the criminal justice system and encouraging people to get help and reconsider their choices.”
Under the policy, cannabis would not be formally decriminalized.
Gillespie’s plan also calls for modest expansion’s to the state’s limited low-THC medical cannabis law.
“Research proves that Virginians can benefit from certain uses of marijuana to help the treatment, pain management, and healing of certain severe conditions. We owe our fellow Virginians every chance of treating and managing certain significant conditions such as cancer and epilepsy,” it says. “Ed supports appropriate, limited, tightly regulated use of marijuana for medicinal purposes based in science and on medical trials.”
State Sen. Jill Vogel, Gillespie’s lieutenant governor running mate, previously introduced legislation to add new qualifying medical conditions under the law. “Expanding safe, legal access to CBD oil and medical marijuana for seriously ill patients gives doctors another option and ensures patients aren’t forced to choose between receiving treatment and following the law,” Vogel said. “I’m proud to have taken the lead in introducing legislation in Virginia’s Senate helping expand safe, legal access for patients in need and look forward to working with my party as an advocate for this much-needed policy reform.”
In an earlier Facebook Live chat, Gillespie said, “I think there has been a growing case for tightly regulated, strictly regulated medicinal marijuana.”
Gillespie also supports allowing hemp cultivation. “Industrial hemp is a cash crop and can be found in a variety of products such as paper construction materials, food, personal care items, rope, canvas and nutritional supplements,” his campaign website says. “Ed will work with the federal government, General Assembly and licensing boards to explore industrial hemp production as an option for Virginians.”
As a Republican, Gillespie argues he is best positioned to push the federal government to modernize its approach to hemp. “Given the science and the data that we have at this point, I would be one who would be able to work with the Trump administration to be able to make the case for Virginia being one of the areas where we should be able to establish some practices and procedures for us to be able to have commercial development for industrial hemp,” he said.
CONTEXT: Virginia lawmakers considered but did not act on decriminalization legislation during the 2017 session. However, with the State Crime Commission conducting its study of the issue by the request of the Senate majority leader, its possible recommendation of removing marijuana’s criminal penalties would likely provide a significant boost to efforts to pass a bill.
Election day in both New Jersey and Virginia is Tuesday, November 7.
Photo courtesy of Democracy Chronicles.