Marijuana Advocates Push For Legalization In New Jersey, Despite Federal Rules

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Business partners Mariela Vivero and Claudia Santoro said they have a vision for an ocean-side spa in New Jersey where clients can indulge in a massage or a manicure, all while enjoying legal marijuana.

Their aim is to capitalize on the health and wellness aspect of cannabis, Vivero said, once it becomes legal in the state. But she acknowledged they had a long way to go.

“It’s all new to us and you know we have to kind of wait around a little bit to see what we’re allowed and not allowed to do,” she told WNYC.

Vivero and Santoro were two of dozens of entrepreneurs attending the “Deals and Divas: Women in Cannabis” meetup in Times Square earlier this month. Over wine and cheese, potential investors, growers and sellers of marijuana, and marijuana-related products, talked about how they could cash in on a billion-dollar business that could take off despite the fact that marijuana is illegal under federal law.

Marijuana is on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s list of Schedule 1 controlled substances, along with heroin and ecstasy. But 29 states — including New Jersey — have passed laws to allow legal use for medical purposes, and eight states have legalized it for adult recreational use.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy supports efforts to legalize recreational marijuana in the Garden State. Murphy said it could raise hundreds of millions in revenue to boost the state’s struggling budget, and he has argued legalization is a civil rights issue, because so many more people of color are arrested on marijuana charges than white people, despite similar rates of use.

The legal marijuana industry was able to take root in part because the Obama administration directed federal prosecutors to re-set priorities for marijuana enforcement, focusing on the most serious offenses and essentially ignoring lower-level offenses.

That guidance was known as “the Cole memo,” said Brian Sharkey, a New Jersey attorney who leads a cannabis task force at his firm, Porzio, Bromberg & Newman. He said things changed for the burgeoning industry last month when Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued his own memo which instructed prosecutors to disregard the Cole memo and pursue enforcement at their discretion.

His move infuriated supporters of marijuana legalization, including New Jersey Senator Cory Booker who has sponsored a bill to remove marijuana from the federal list of controlled substances.

“What Jeff Sessions did today is unconscionable, unacceptable, and I will fight against it,” Booker said in a impassioned speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate. “Because when I go home I see the communities who struggle. I can’t turn my head and not understand that there are millions of Americans who are hurting from this decades long war on drugs.”

Back in New Jersey, a spokesman at the U. S. Attorney’s office in Newark would not define how local prosecutors would use their discretion when it came to marijuana offenses.

While that kind of uncertainty could spook investors, New Jersey State Assemblyman Reed Gusciora said he was not discouraged. As sponsor of a bill to legalize marijuana, Gusciora said the momentum in New Jersey was too strong to stop now.

“I think that there are many investors and also legislators willing to take the chance,” he said.

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