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New Jersey Governor Appoints Top Marijuana Regulator Following Legalization Vote

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New Jersey lawmakers are already working on enabling legislation following Tuesday’s vote in favor of a marijuana legalization referendum, with an Assembly committee hearing scheduled for Monday. And on Friday, the governor has announced his picks for regulators to lead the implementation of the program.

Gov. Phil Murphy (D) named Dianna Houenou, a current administration staffer and former policy counsel to the ACLU of New Jersey, to lead the state’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC). And she immediately made clear that social justice will be a key objective.

“Cannabis legalization and regulation is just one illustration of much larger work that is needed to reform our drug policies wholesale,” she told The Root. “We really are looking to make sure that equity is built into a regulated structure at the onset.”

“There is no limit to how big we can dream and how creative we can get to make sure that people of color and specifically black people, who have been disproportionately negatively impacted by the war on drugs—making sure that they have room in this new industry,” she said. “To benefit and to take part in setting up what can be a great boon for communities.”

Murphy, who had consistently campaigned in favor of the legalization referendum in the lead up to Election Day, said that Houenou “has been a critical voice for social justice and equity on my team for the past year and a half after spending several years working on the fight to legalize marijuana with the ACLU.”

“Her commitment to doing what is right and to leaving no one behind has powered our criminal justice reform agenda, and I am immensely proud that she will be continuing that commitment as Chair of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission,” he said.

The governor also named Jeff Brown, the current assistant commissioner of the state’s Division of Medicinal Marijuana, as the executive director of the CRC.

During an earlier briefing on Thursday, the governor reiterated that legalization “is a matter of social justice, racial justice, economic justice and at the end of all that, flat out common sense.”

“I am proud that New Jersey is now joining the other states which have similarly come to recognize that our outdated marijuana laws really ended up doing little more than sending predominantly black and brown, mostly young men, to jail and thereby limiting their potential and harming our communities and in some cases, changing their lives for the rest of their lives,” he said. “I look forward to working with the legislature to swiftly pass enabling legislation that will set up a regulatory framework for adult use marijuana.”

To that end, a top state senator recently said that he’s been working on a bill to establish regulations for the recreational cannabis program. Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D), chair of the Judiciary Committee, told Marijuana Moment in an interview that the plan was to release the legislation on Thursday, but that did not happen.

Meanwhile, the Assembly Oversight Committee is set to hold a hearing on enabling legislation on Monday. It’s not immediately clear if the bill will be identical to Scutari’s version, though a staffer told Marijuana Moment that she expected it would be.

As New Jersey legislators prepare to take action on an implementation bill, the state’s attorney general on Wednesday released guidance to police and prosecutors urging them to “exercise discretion” in pursuing cannabis cases as regulations are developed. However, he said they couldn’t codify blanket policies that effectively decriminalize cannabis in the interim.

Murphy referenced that guidance during his briefing, stating that “recreational marijuana remains illegal under our state law” until the legislature approves regulations. That said, he stressed that “both prosecutors and law enforcement have very broad discretion to handle low level marijuana offenses,” signaling that he wants them to avoid prosecuting people for low-level cannabis cases.

“I saw what the attorney general said and I hope there’s a lot of weight on the word ‘discretion,'” he said. “There’s a wide discretion associated with actions that could be taken and I hope that that is the reality.”

Although the governor has framed his support for legalization as a step toward repairing the harms of past enforcement, on Friday he dodged a question about whether issuing commutations or pardons for people with existing low-level marijuana offenses would be part of his plan to push for restorative justice.

Instead, he again referenced the attorney general’s guidance on prosecutorial discretion and vaguely said the state is going to “work on the legislation when we get that hopefully to my desk sooner than later.”

The governor also predicted that it may take some time before retail sales launch in the state, telling a reporter that “I think it could” take up to a year.

“The [state’s existing medical cannabis dispensaries] would like to be able to expand their operation sooner than that and that’s something that I know, this is all pending legislation that’s being worked on and establishing the commission and beginning to name commissioners and executive directors,” he said. “All of that will begin to happen at least sooner than later.”

“The medical establishments, as you likely know, have to prove that they are not eating into—no pun intended—their supply for the medical purposes, that they’ve got excess capacity and that’s something that is clearly on the table, and that could theoretically happen sooner,” he said.

Scutari, the senator who will be introducing the enabling legislation, told Marijuana Moment that “retail sales will be available at the medical stores as soon as they have the product. That’s the first wave of legal availability.”

“The second is obviously newly started regulated businesses. That takes quite a bit longer. But there’s no reason why, in the next 90 days, they can’t grow any more product and get it out the shelves,” he said, seemingly contradicting the governor’s projected timeline. “I mean, not saying they will, but they could—it’s not a physical impossibility.”

Murphy, who congratulated other states that legalized cannabis on Tuesday, spoke in favor of the reform proposal in multiple interviews and campaign ads ahead of the vote. He’s often discussed the need to enact the end prohibition as a matter of social justice and also to promote economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

But when his state’s legal cannabis system is up and running, the governor says he won’t be partaking.

“I don’t have a burning appetite to do it,” he told 1010 WINS on Thursday, evidently playing into cannabis culture in a way he claimed he unintentionally did days prior. “I’m a dad of four. It wasn’t a natural for me when we first started debating it.”

In June, the state Assembly passed a marijuana decriminalization bill that would make possession of up to two ounces a civil penalty without the threat of jail time, though it hasn’t advanced in the Senate.

This story has been updated to include additional comments and details from Murphy’s most recent presser.

New York Governor Says Time Is ‘Ripe’ For Marijuana Legalization, And It’ll Pass ‘This Year’

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New Jersey Prosecutors Must Suspend Marijuana Possession Cases, State Attorney General Says

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The New Jersey attorney general on Wednesday told prosecutors to adjourn most marijuana possession cases until at least January 25, 2021 following voter approval of a referendum to legalize cannabis for adult use this month.

While the initiative amends the state Constitution to legalize marijuana for those 21 and older, lawmakers must still pass enabling legislation to create a regulatory framework for cannabis sales. The day after the election, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal (D) had issued initial guidance to prosecutors encouraging them to use discretion when it comes to marijuana offenses that will soon be codified as legal.

But this latest announcement expands on that memo, ordering prosecutors to pause cases involving a wide range of low-level cannabis possession offenses.

“Fairness demands that we suspend prosecution of marijuana possession-related cases while we await direction from the Legislature on the parameters for decriminalization of marijuana and legalization of regulated adult-use cannabis,” Grewal said. “It simply does not make sense or serve justice to proceed with prosecutions on charges that may be foreclosed soon through legislative action.”

The attorney general’s office listed seven specific laws that will be impacted by the temporary policy change, including those penalizing possession of up to 50 grams of cannabis and being under the influence of marijuana.

“Notably, today’s guidance does not affect the prosecution of cases charging distribution of marijuana or possession of marijuana with intent to distribute,” a press release from his office says.

The new memo specifies that “in cases where there are other pending charges in addition to the marijuana possession-related offenses enumerated above, prosecutors shall use their discretion to either postpone the case in its entirety or seek dismissal, without prejudice, of the above-enumerated marijuana possession-related charge(s) and proceed with prosecution of the remaining charges.”

In the previous guidance released earlier this month, Grewal recognized that there may be some confusion among residents about the implications of the legalization referendum’s passage so police and prosecutors “should exercise discretion” in pursuing marijuana cases, as outlined under earlier 2018 guidance that he issued.

A municipal prosecutor recently argued in a memo sent to colleagues across the state that voters’ approval of the legalization referendum, as well as the attorney general’s earlier directive this month, means that many current cannabis cases should not be pursued.

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D), who previously pressed the attorney general to issue guidance to suspend arrests and court cases for possession of marijuana, praised the new move on prosecutions.

“Now that the people of NJ have spoken no one should be subject to facing criminal charges for minimal amounts of this substance,” he said in a tweet.

Enabling legislation to set rules for the state’s cannabis market was introduced just days after the referendum vote, and it’s already advancing at the committee level.

Most recently, the Assembly Appropriations Committee and Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee approved legalization bills, albeit in differing forms that will have to be resolved. Planed floor votes for this week have been canceled as leaders hold bicameral negotiations on outstanding details.

Meanwhile, the Senate recently approved a separate marijuana decriminalization bill and the Assembly was supposed to vote on it as well, but that was also pushed back amid disagreement about an amendment to lower penalties for psilocybin, and has yet to be rescheduled.

In anticipation of the legislature’s approval of a legalization bill, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) recently named an official to lead the state’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission that will oversee the legal marijuana market.

Republican Lawmakers And Celebrities Push Trump To Free Marijuana Prisoners Before Leaving Office

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Republican Lawmakers And Celebrities Push Trump To Free Marijuana Prisoners Before Leaving Office

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A group of celebrities, Republican officials and civil rights advocates sent a letter to President Trump on Wednesday, urging him to pardon or commute the sentences of people in federal prison for nonviolent federal marijuana offenses.

The letter, which organizers said they adapted from an earlier request after discussing the previous proposal with the office of Trump senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, states that the signatories “strongly believe that justice necessitates the exercise of executive clemency in these cases.”

Unlike the last version, the new letter comes with an attachment—at the request of Kushner’s office, advocates said—of a specific list of 24 people who are currently behind bars for cannabis offenses, including several who are serving life sentences.

Weldon Angelos, who himself was convicted over cannabis and handed a mandatory minimum sentence before a court cut his sentence and released him, personally delivered the first version of the letter to the White House in March. He told Marijuana Moment that Kushner’s office then reached out to his organization, Mission Green, to request that, in addition to redelivering the request, advocates include a list of incarcerated people who they feel are especially entitled to presidentially granted relief.

Those two dozen currently incarcerated individuals include people like Luke Scarmazzo, who was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison for operating a state-legal medical cannabis business in California. These inmates shouldn’t have to wait for Congress to get around to enacting federal policy change, and the president should use executive action to pardon them, the letter states.

“You have expressed support for the States’ right to implement their own cannabis laws, especially for medicinal purposes,” the signatories, including former NBA star Kevin Garnett, wrote. “And while there are a number of proposals being introduced in Congress to finally put an end to cannabis prohibition, they tend to lack any real avenue of relief for those who are serving time for selling cannabis.”

“Given the timidity of this proposed legislation, the gridlock in Congress, and the imperative of freedom, clemency is the right tool to fix this problem,” it continues. “You and you alone have the power to call out a grand hypocrisy of prior administrations. While cannabis became a thriving, legal market and enriched many, your predecessors ignored the people who were—and are—serving long federal terms for doing the same thing.”

Leaders in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives announced that they plan to vote on a far-reaching bill to federally legalize marijuana next month, but the Republican Senate has shown no signs it intends to follow suit.

Among the more than 50 signatories of the new letter is Alice Johnson, who appeared at the Republican National Convention and whose story was featured in Trump campaign ads after her drug sentence was commuted by the president.

Republican state lawmakers from Kansas, Maine and Missouri also signed on, as did a former U.S. attorney, actor Danny Trejo, the New Haven, Connecticut police chief and former New Mexico governor and presidential candidate Gary Johnson. They were joined by representatives of groups like #cut50, Marijuana Policy Project and Law Enforcement Action Partnership.

So far during his administration, Trump has granted 27 pardons and 11 commutations. But the advocates behind this letter, including members of the CAN-DO Foundation, which partnered with Mission Green, expect to see a ramping up of clemency from the executive office in the coming weeks, as is traditional during the final weeks of a presidency.

Kushner and the White House press office did not immediately reply to Marijuana Moment’s request for comment for this story.

Angelos said that he hasn’t received confirmation on timing, but he expects Trump to announce additional pardons and commutations as early as the Thanksgiving holiday.

“It’s ridiculous that we currently have a billionaire in the cannabis industry, yet we are keeping select individuals in prison for doing the exact same thing. This is just another example of a wasteful and destructive criminal justice system,” he said in a press release. “I firmly believe President Trump will strongly consider fixing some of the most egregious sentences that we have brought to his attention.”

“He’s the first president on modern history to commute a number of sentences in his first few years in office,” he added. “Traditionally, pardons and commutations happen at the end of a presidency, and so this pattern gives us some comfort that we will get justice for some of them.”

It’s not clear how Trump will react to the request for a round of cannabis-specific clemency.

His reelection campaign worked to frame him as the criminal justice reform candidate, but he hasn’t proactively championed marijuana reform, has made several anti-legalization administration hires and issued signing statements stipulating that he reserves the right to ignore long-standing congressional riders that prohibit the Justice Department from using its funds to interfere with state-legal medical cannabis programs.

Also, despite his pledged support for medical marijuana and states’ rights, the president evidently holds some negative views toward cannabis consumption, as evidenced in a 2018 recording in which he said that using it makes people “lose IQ points.”

Read the letter to Trump about marijuana clemency below:

Letter to President Trump -… by Marijuana Moment

Marijuana Legalization Is Inevitable In New York, Especially After New Jersey Vote, Top Senator Says

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New Jersey Prosecutor Urges Colleagues To Stop Pursuing Most Marijuana Cases While Legalization Bill Advances

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A municipal prosecutor in New Jersey is arguing in a memo sent to colleagues across the state that voters’ approval of a marijuana legalization referendum this month, and subsequent guidance from the attorney general, means that many current cannabis cases should not be pursued.

In a two-page message to other top law enforcement officials that was shared with Marijuana Moment, Jon-Henry Barr, the municipal prosecutor for the Township of Clark, said that he appreciated that state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal (D) released guidance stipulating that police and prosecutors “should exercise discretion” in pursuing marijuana cases.

But voters made clear on Election Day that they no longer want to see adults 21 and older to be convicted for simple possession, he said, and they also lack control over lawmakers’ timeline for passing enabling legislation that would codify that policy statewide.

“New Jersey’s municipal prosecutors can look to the text of the State Constitution and interpretive caselaw for more guidance about what should be done with pending cases,” Barr, who is a past president of the New Jersey State Municipal Prosecutor’s Association and is a member of the pro-reform group Law Enforcement Action Partnership, wrote. “The primary duty of a lawyer engaged in public prosecution is not to convict, but to see that justice is done.”

The attorney general’s reminder that prosecutors have discretion in cannabis cases is important, but it still leaves questions about how exactly they should proceed in the interim while lawmakers work on implementing regulations for a legal marijuana market, he said.

“In light of the global pandemic and the statewide referendum, are the interests of justice served by continuing to prosecute low level marijuana cases?” he asked. “I conclude that no reasonable argument can be made to claim that the interests of justice are accomplished by maintaining the prosecution of most current cases. However, that does not mean that all cases should simply be summarily dismissed.”

In terms of what types of cases could continue to be subject to prosecution, Barr said the referendum simply applied to low-level possession for those 21 and older. Underage possession, distribution and possession with the intent to distribute should all still be pursued on a case by case basis, at least while the legislature works to enact specific regulations.

While the attorney general in 2018 issued previous initial guidance encouraging discretion in marijuana cases, Barr said the referendum vote demonstrates that “public policy in New Jersey has now shifted significantly further, and it is my thoughtfully considered, carefully researched, and well-reasoned position that most, but not all, current marijuana cases should not be prosecuted.”

“I again maintain that this memo fully respects and complies with the direction provided thus far by the attorney general of New Jersey, and complete deference to his directives will continue,” he said.

Enabling legislation to set rules for the state’s cannabis market was introduced just days after the referendum vote, and it’s already advancing at the committee level.

Most recently, the Assembly Appropriations Committee and Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee approved legalization bills, albeit in differing forms that will have to be resolved. Planed floor votes for this week have been canceled as leaders hold bicameral negotiations on outstanding details.

Meanwhile, the Senate recently approved a separate marijuana decriminalization bill and the Assembly was supposed to vote on it as well, but that was also pushed back amid disagreement about an amendment to lower penalties for psilocybin, and has yet to be rescheduled.

In anticipation of the legislature’s approval of a legalization bill, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) recently named an official to lead the state’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission that will oversee the legal marijuana market.

Read the memo to prosecutors on marijuana enforcement discretion below: 

Memo on marijuana prosecuti… by Marijuana Moment

Connecticut Lawmakers Will Put Marijuana Legalization On The Ballot If Legislature Rejects Bill

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