Cannabis influencers: An optimistic leader on the choppy waters of legalization –

This story is part of a series of profiles, The CannaInfluencers: The people shaping the cannabis industry in the Garden State. Written by NJ Cannabis Insider reporters, the profiles will publish in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 3 election, when New Jersey voters will decide whether to legalize recreational, adult-use cannabis.

Long before New Jersey lawmakers ever thought of legalizing marijuana, Bill Caruso was involved in cannabis.

An avid kayaker, Caruso — a resident of Berlin in South Jersey — paddles some 20 miles a week year-round and often taking longer trips. He picked up distance paddling in his 30s after catching the waves off the Jersey Shore on his surfboard in his younger days, not to mention trips to Hawaii and California to ride the wild surf.

And like the distance kayaking he so much loves, Caruso’s approach to cannabis legalization has been about the journey, brimming with the optimism that comes from the confidence of knowing that we’ll get there some day.

Caruso’s first exposure to the benefits of marijuana came as a 22-year-old staff member to a New Jersey congressman. California in 1996 had legalized the drug for medical use. Still his boss, Rep. Rob Andrews, D-1st Dist., like most lawmakers, was opposed.

“This was the change, where we started to see a legitimacy of marijuana, if you will, but still this culture that like, well, come on, those were the hippies in California,” Caruso, 46, said. „It was a foreign position to be supportive of medical marijuana , let alone legalization or decriminalization.

“At age 22, I’m scratching my head and saying, ‘Why not?’ This was a cultural change. It was a generational change.”

Then came, as he put it, “A moment in my life that changed my whole view of everything.”

Caruso was trying to calm an obviously agitated Jim Miller, a New Jersey resident. Miller had been going from congressional office to congressional office in Washington, wheeling a gurney with his wife Cheryl, who had multiple sclerosis and used marijuana to ease her pain.

He sought meetings with lawmakers to try to convince Congress to legalize the drug for medical use, and brought his wife to Andrews’ office.

Caruso said he was asked to meet the couple.

“I greeted them at the door and he was irate,” Caruso recalled. “He wanted to meet with the congressman. They didn’t have an appointment. I told him he couldn’t.”

Andrews poked his head out to ask what was going on.

“The congressman says. ‘What’s that commotion going on?’” Caruso said. “I said, ‘We have some constituent from New Jersey with his wife in a gurney wanting to meet about medical marijuana.’ He said, ‘Bring them in. It’s relevant. I want to talk to them.’”

Andrews and Caruso met with the Millers for 45 minutes, ignoring a vote on the House floor.

“He sat intent and watched the love of this family,” Caruso said, referring to Andrews. “We were in tears at the end. He said, ‘I’ve been wrong about this. I’m changing my position.’”

“That was my first entrée into this,” Caruso said. “It was the first time I had seen genuine advocacy work. The conversation ended in a really good place. He was just at his wit’s end, visibly angry and upset.”

When Andrews left Congress, Caruso left Washington and moved to Trenton to work for the state Assembly Democratic majority as executive director, where he helped draft legislation to legalize cannabis for medical use.

It was a weak bill, designed to pave the way for future legislative and executive action. Caruso described it was “crawl, walk, run.” But it passed in 2009.

However, Gov. Jon Corzine was defeated that fall, replaced by Gov. Chris Christie, who was not a fan of legal cannabis. A budding industry didn’t get too far off the ground for years.

Meanwhile, Caruso — now married and the father of three boys — decided to enter the private sector, joining Archer Public Affairs in 2013.

And he said he got some advice on making the move into advocacy from Jim Miller, the anguished husband he had met with years earlier, who had gone on to co-found the Coalition for Medical Marijuana in New Jersey.

A year later, Caruso said, he urged his bosses to begin an effort for full legalization of cannabis.

“I said I want to start an effort here in New Jersey to legalize marijuana,” Caruso said. “The shareholders looked at me like I was crazy.”

But they said yes, and New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform began.

The group argued for legalizing marijuana on the basis of the disproportionate enforcement of drug laws on minority communities. But the “one of the greatest game changers” was the emphasis on the revenues and businesses that would be created by legal cannabis, especially in a state with large agricultural and pharmaceutical industries, he said.

“When you start talking about the jobs, the economy that’s created for both medical and legal and the tax revenue that’s generated off it, that’s when people are coming around on this,” said Caruso, who is among the leaders of the advocacy group, NJ CAN 2020, that is spearheading this fall’s ballot initiative to allow cannabis for personal use.

“The idiocy of locking people up and the lost opportunities and then the idea here is there is revenue out there for something that most people really don’t think is that big a deal.”

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Jonathan D. Salant may be reached at

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