NJ & VA Elect New Cannabis-Friendly Governors

By David Jenison on November 10, 2017

Update: Phil Murphy easily rode to victory in the New Jersey gubernatorial race today, which suggests the Garden State that might become the first state to legalize cannabis through the legislature. The Virginia race, however, was more competitive, and many thought the Trump-loving prohibitionist in the race might pull off an upset. In the end, cannabis-friendly Ralph Northam—who pledged to decriminalize cannabis—won the governorship by about eight points. 

The November 2018 midterms look to have medical and/or recreational cannabis on the ballot in several states, including Arizona, Missouri, South Dakota, Utah, Florida, Nebraska and Idaho, depending on the number of signatures collected by advocates. That said, the next chance to cast a vote in favor of legalization is tomorrow, not a year from tomorrow. 

New Jersey and Virginia hold critical gubernatorial elections today (Tuesday, November 7). In both states, the incumbents—Republican Chris Christie of New Jersey and Democrat Terry McAuliffe of Virginia—could not run again due to term limits, and their would-be replacements have made their intentions clear on the issue of cannabis legalization. 

For the past eight years, Gov. Christie has been one of the world's leading prohibitionists, and his zeal in cracking down on cannabis is matched only by his glaring ignorance and dickishness on the issue. Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno, the Republican running to replace him, is a former sheriff and prosecutor, and while more moderate than her blowhard boss, she's been accused of backdoor deals and fraud. Her son went to college in Colorado, so she claims to be an expert on how damaging legalization can be, though she's open to decriminalization. 

The pro-cannabis vote, however, should go to Phil Murphy, the gubernatorial nominee for the Democratic party. The former diplomat supports full legalization, calling it "a social justice issue." In his speech after winning the party primary in June, Murphy said, "The criminalization of marijuana has only served to clog our courts and cloud people’s futures, so we will legalize marijuana. And while there are financial benefits, this is overwhelmingly about doing what is right and just."

Murphy said he's driven to legalize cannabis as a social justice issue and "not because we can make money off of it," but a study suggests that New Jersey would rack in $300 million per year in cannabis-related taxes. 

Per, "Electing Democrat Phil Murphy means New Jersey would soon join eight other states in legalizing marijuana for people 21 and older and creating what is predicted to be a multibillion-dollar industry. He's promised to sign a legalization bill into law within the first 100 days of his term. Democrats who control the state Legislature appear willing."

This would make New Jersey the first state to legalize recreational cannabis through the legislature rather than through a ballot initiative. 

The candidates' final debate took place on October 18, and Guadagno claimed that traffic deaths in Colorado rose 48 percent since legalization, a questionable claim filled with caveats. Murphy, meanwhile, cited studies that show cannabis decreases opioid deaths, which Governor Christie quickly railed against on Twitter. 

Christie currently enjoys a 15 percent approval rating in New Jersey, and a landmark decision by a state appeals court on October 31 said his administration must revisit the legal standing of cannabis now that (per the judges) the "medical benefits from the use of marijuana... are abundant and glaringly apparent now." 

The week before the debate, former Vice President Joe Biden accused Guadagno of releasing a racist Willie Horton-style ad and called the New Jersey contest the "single most important race in America to be taking place this year." 

In the Old Dominion State, the race for the top job pits Democratic Lt. Governor Ralph Northam against former RNC Chair Ed Gillespie. Though less progressive on the issue than Murphy, Northam made cannabis a major part of his campaign pushing for decriminalization and increasing medical access. As a military veteran and doctor, the Lt. Governor examined medical cannabis and became "increasingly convinced by the data showing potential health benefits of marijuana, such as pain relief, drug-resistant epilepsy, and treatment for PTSD. By decriminalizing it, our researchers can better study the plant so doctors can more effectively prescribe drugs made from it."

Per his campaign website, he also wrote, "We need to change sentencing laws that disproportionately hurt people of color. One of the best ways to do this is to decriminalize marijuana. African Americans are eight 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."

Gillespie, who once supported a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, does not want to end cannabis prohibition, but he does want to see less jail time. At present, first-time offenders caught with less than half an ounce face up to 30 days in jail, while subsequent offenses can result in a year behind bars. The Republican nominee proposed waiting until a third offense before throwing cannabis smokers into jail cells. Gillespie does not support decriminalization. 

Do you live in New Jersey or Virginia? Tomorrow is your chance to add another crack to 80 years of cannabis prohibition by voting for Phil Murphy or Ralph Northam. 

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