Why Phil Murphy, NJ’s Legal Weed Cheerleader, Took So Long To Fess Up To Pot-Smoking Past

Photo Credit: Dustin Racioppi

The New Jersey governor who promises to “have your back,” showed little spine over the past couple of days when asked about his own history of marijuana use.

Pressed Wednesday if he ever “consumed” pot or planned to do so in the future if it becomes legal, Phil Murphy gave a squishy, non-denial denial, suggesting that he was more comfortable bellying up to the bar than toking away at a bong. “I was never a marijuana guy,” he said,

Murphy again wriggled uncomfortably on Thursday when confronted by another  pot-use question. It came at the end one of those celebratory news conferences-photo-op sessions with trade union leaders in Edison.

“Governor, will you smoke pot once it is legalized?” The crowd of workers in bright day-glo green t-shirts erupted in uncomfortable laughter at the impertinent, off-topic question to a governor who made legalizing marijuana a campaign cornerstone and priority in his new administration. A clearly exasperated Murphy replied, “We’ll deal with that some other time.”

That time came two hours later with a terse confession on Twitter. Yes, he indulged “once or twice many years ago,” Murphy wrote, but he has no interest to “partake again.”

Finally, Murphy cleared away the smoke that had been building for nearly two days. Yet it was Murphy’s own feeble, unnecessary dodge that fanned the flames. Murphy, not quite four months into his first elected post, came across as an evasive career politician.

Murphy could have swiftly put an end to speculation about his past by confronting the issue head on when first asked, instead of being cornered into a Tweet on Thursday. And that statement, it should be noted, was a perfectly reasonable, non-controversial reply to a question that is simply not all that controversial anymore.

Would anyone be shocked to learn that Murphy, a Harvard undergraduate during the “Me Generation” of the 1970s, smoked pot at some point? A politician’s pot-smoking past is now considered a wayward chapter in their coming-of-age narrative. It’s no longer a disqualifying factor.

Fessing up is now a rite of passage for aspiring political figures, a strategically wise, preemptive move. Better to admit early rather than duck and evade later on.

Officials ranging from Arnold “The Terminator” Schwarzenegger to the button-downed Jeb Bush have openly admitted to smoking pot.

“Sorry Mom,” Bush tweeted after making the admission in 2015.

Sarah Palin confessed. Conservative Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, acknowledge smoking pot as a teenager. Even Newt Gingrich admitted to a pot smoking past (although that didn’t stop him from proposing the death penalty for smuggling marijuana in 1996.)

And if Murphy needed any further persuading that it was safe to go public, all he has to do as look at the polls, which suggest that most New Jersey residents are ready to embrace his plan to legalize marijuana for recreational use for people 21 or older.

A recent Monmouth University poll said that six-in-10 people think legalizing and taxing marijuana will help the economy, and 59 percent are in favor of small amounts for recreational use. That’s an 11-point increase from four years ago, and few think legalization will lead to more drug crime.

So why be cagey?

One explanation is Murphy’s inexperience. This is his first elected office and he has spent little time in the past sparring with reporters or giving answers to unexpected questions. He’s relentless when sticking to a prepared message, but stumbles when he doesn’t have a script.

Murphy simply doesn’t have the skill yet to navigate a difficult question on the fly, like his predecessor Chris Christie, a master of tip-toeing through mine fields with bluster. . Murphy didn’t need bluster. A candid answer would have sufficed.

“This is exactly the danger I thought was posed by the fact that he cruised into office without any real challenge in the primary or the general election,” said Patrick Murray, the Monmouth University pollster. “He’s never faced the gauntlet of having to think on his feet and answer questions. And that kind of experience is just invaluable.”

Another explanation is concerns that an admission of a past use might inflame hard line foes of marijuana legalization, who still view marijuana as a gateway drug and have no interest in legalizing any drugs during an opioid epidemic. No amount of counter evidence, that marijuana actually weans people off their opioid dependence, will change their minds.

Admitting openly and unreservedly to smoking pot in the past might stir suspicions that Murphy’s real intent is to placate liberal hipsters and corporate pot profiteers, whose eyeballs are filled with dollar signs. That is why Murphy constantly insists that he’s motivated by a desire to dismantle outdated marijuana laws, which have led to disproportionate jailing of blacks and Latinos.

“But this effort isn’t about me – this is about social justice,” Murphy wrote in his Tweet.

Murphy’s legalization push is still a long way off —  the votes are not there yet in the Democratic controlled legislature.  Yet, Murphy is still depending on the law being passed and a substantial number of people buying and smoking legal pot once it hits the market.

His $37.4 billion budget anticipates raising $60 million in revenue from legal pot sales. Other analysts say the market could grow to $300 million and possibly higher. That would help finance Murphy’s ambitious, progressive agenda in future years — free community college tuition, expanding pre-school programs, the modernization of mass transit, and others.

In that sense, marijuana legalization is all about Phil Murphy.