BREAKING: In NJ governor’s race, Lesniak updates pot policy position, supports legalization

By: Ben Szioli

       I was sitting in the “green room” (I can attest that the room was not green) at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark when State Senator Ray Lesniak strode in. The date was May 1st, 2017 and the event was a joint New Jersey NAACP-Institute for Social Justice forum, so Senator Lesniak circled the room, shaking hands with organizers before settling down on a sofa.

       As Lesniak lounged, one leg crossed over his knee, CMTV co-director Jeff Epstein stepped up to say hello, introducing me as the editor of a feature about the Senator. Lesniak complimented my fact-checking, saying that he was prompted to return to the evidence on cannabis by Epstein’s treatment of his pro-decriminalization, anti-legalization stance in the article. Lesniak cited uncertainty and concern for minors as his reasons for remaining uncommitted about legalization previously. I was initially amused and a bit honored, but the topic of marijuana was so far out of my focus that, soon, I had nearly forgotten the senator’s comment.

       Monday, May 8th, a week later, I again encountered Senator Lesniak; this time at the GAAMC primary forum in Morristown, NJ.

       “Ray!” I said, holding out my hand for a handshake. Lesniak had a binder wrapped in his arms, so he clutched my right hand with his left, making an awkward handshake surprisingly friendly. I was about to continue on my way, when Lesniak suddenly recalled something.

       “Did you hear?” he asked, citing a study evaluated by the Canadian government, “I updated my stance on legalization.”

       I had not heard this. In fact, no one had, because, at the time, marijuana was not included among the campaign positions on Lesniak’s site. Lesniak continued, “I don’t like to be uncertain on things, and I was uncertain on this.” The next day, May 9th, Lesniak reiterated his new pro-legalization stance at the Stockton ELEC debate. “It was very difficult for me to come out in favor of legalized marijuana,” Lesniak said. However, he stressed: “We have to do it right.”

       And indeed, recently, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party laid out their plan for legalization based on the findings of a panel on legalization. Lesniak suggested that, if Canada is going to legalize marijuana, there is no reason for the United States not to do so, as well. The senator stated his intent to borrow the Canadian model and hopefully avoid some of the shortfalls of the commercialized model being executed in Colorado, about which Lesniak has raised concerns in the past.

       At the core of the new Canadian system, according to the Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation’s final report, are a few basic goals: harm reduction, a safe supply chain, public safety, medical access and proper implementation.

       The goal of harm reduction is addressed by a series of regulations on the new cannabis industry. The report recommends mandating:

  • a legal age of eighteen for cannabis
  • plainly labeled, opaque, re-sealable child-proof packaging
  • a universal THC symbol to mark edible formulations
  • a maximum dosage for edible formulations
  • a ban on products mixed with caffeine or nicotine
  • a tax on high-potency cannabis
  • strict controls on advertising toward children
  • strict controls on false claims
  • public education programs

       Toward the end of establishing a safe supply chain for cannabis, the Canadian panel recommends that the provincial and territorial governments regulate a competitive cannabis market, rather than allowing companies to profitize the industry. This would equate to the state government controlling cannabis regulation, in an Americanized version of the plan. The report also suggests seed-to-sale tracking of cannabis plants and products, outdoor cannabis growing to encourage environmental stewardship, and regulation of both hemp and CBD, THC’s sister compound. Additionally, the report suggests allowing citizens to grow four plants up to 100 cm tall, which is just less than forty inches in height.

       Public safety measures suggested by the report include allowing citizens to transport no more than thirty grams, or slightly more than an ounce, in public. According to Erowid, thirty grams is approximately three hundred “strong” doses for a person with no tolerance. Trafficking of marijuana and impaired driving would still be cracked down on harshly. Finally, the Canadian model is rounded out by a mandate that medical marijuana remain separate from recreational marijuana, as well as numerous recommendations about how to implement all these policies, both legislatively and logistically.

       If Lesniak really intends to push for this model, it certainly could be taken as a surprise. As recently as March and April, Lesniak remained against legalization, and the Canadian model is unlike anything attempted in the United States so far. Colorado favors a more commercialized system with less distinction between recreational and medicinal cannabis operations. While California has far more health, quality and business restrictions than Colorado, they don’t go nearly so far as Lesniak is suggesting with the Canadian model. In that model, the cannabis supply chain is tightly controlled by the government (something Americans tend to resist), and the plan already has opposition in Canada.

       But as for the spirit of the policy, I think the Champion for Recovery has done an admirable job transitioning to a more progressive position without betraying his ideals. Lesniak, whose name graces a high school for youths who struggle with drugs and alcohol, has remained on the fence about marijuana since at least 2015. He has, however, demonstrated good will on the issue as far back as 2009, when he advocated a sentence commutation for an MS patient caught growing marijuana in his yard. Later, in 2010, Lesniak supported legislature, which eventually passed, to establish a medical marijuana system in New Jersey, after which he continued to advocate for decriminalization.

       Taking history into account, my instinct is, for the most part, that Senator Lesniak’s new policy is a logical, evidence-based extension of his previous positions—compassion toward both young people and sufferers of drug addiction. On the subjects of education and healthcare, he may not be a production-line progressive, but as far as continuously advancing his policies for the disadvantaged, I have to admit that Ray Lesniak has never accepted anything but progress.

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