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 the weeks leading up to the Nov. 3 election, when New Jersey voters will decide whether to legalize recreational, adult-use cannabis.
1906, a cannabis edibles company deeply rooted in Colorado, wants to branch out into Florida. Yet it might be a year or more before the Sunshine State allows the market to grow.
But that hasn’t stopped CEO Peter Barsoom from planting seeds.
Barsoom asked his Chief of Policy & Health Innovations, Jackie Cornell, to serve on the Florida Medical Cannabis Advisory Committee so she can get acquainted with the market, the regulators and the rapidly-growing patient base of 300,000.
Cornell was Deputy Health Commissioner for the first 15 months of Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration, in 2018 and 2019, at a time when he aggressively expanded the state’s stagnant medicinal marijuana program. There are striking parallels between Florida and New Jersey, where patients have had to accept limited choices — in dispensaries, products and price, he said.
“She had the experience of what it was like to inherit something that sucked,” Barsoom said.
“The people (in Florida) running the program realize they have their hands tied. Jackie was able not only to be empathetic to that position and thoughtful, but she also could say here are things you can do despite some of the shackles by the Legislature and executive branch,” Barsoom said. “She is building those relationships and investing the time, so that when the market opens up, we are ready to go.”
With a background in politics, public health and government — including a stint in the Obama administration during the implementation of the Affordable Care Act — Cornell brings a regulator’s sensibility and an activist streak to the cannabis industry.
All of this will continue to come in handy as the market grows, hopefully in her home state of New Jersey which is poised to approve marijuana legalization in a ballot question on Nov. 3.
“I started my career as a sex educator at Planned Parenthood. This is almost the same model — I educate you on the options and empower you to make the best decisions,” said Cornell, 37, a Pennington resident and a Rutgers University and The College of New Jersey alumna. “It feels very full-circle to me in a weird way. The war on the drugs and the war on sex — Just say no-ism hasn’t worked for anything.”
Through her work on the advisory committee in Florida, Cornell said she has observed a “fair amount of ‘reefer madness’ in Tallahassee” — even as “boomers and seniors are rapidly embracing the benefits of cannabis for a wide range of conditions and quality of life.”
“Nearly every state is struggling when it comes to finding the sweet spot of balancing government oversight, attracting responsible and thoughtful cannabis companies and meeting the needs of consumers,” Cornell said.
Catholic school ingrained in her an interest in public service, which led her into government, said the Rahway native. Searing personal life experience — she is a sexual assault survivor, and her father suffered a heart attack at age 45 — piqued her interest in public health.
Her resume includes senior positions for U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, D-12 Dist., and regional director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Cornell founded the New Jersey chapter of the New Leaders Council, a national leadership training program for young progressives and she has served on numerous state and national campaigns.
When she joined the Murphy administration 2-½ years ago, the governor signed an executive order that required the health department’s immediate attention on fixing the medical marijuana program. After eight years under the Christie administration, it had enrolled only 17,000 people and licensed five operators. Today, nine operators run 11 retail sites serving nearly 90,000 patients.
“The more I dove into the Department of Health work and overseeing the medicinal program there — we hadn’t hired (Assistant Health Commissioner) Jeff Brown yet — and the more I talked to patients, the more I understood how you can really cater the plant to give you benefits far greater than I think people realize,” Cornell said.
“For me, the trajectory into cannabis is rooted in the idea of how we empower people to make the best decisions for their health care and the quality of their life.”
Barsoom said he saw Cornell as a good fit for his company because “we have a strong advocacy role.” He named the company 1906 for the year marijuana prohibition began. “Our mission is to bring an end to prohibition and end the harmful effects on Black and brown people,” he said.
1906, which sells low-dose, fast-acting edibles like chocolates and colorful drops in Colorado and most recently in Oklahoma, hasn’t broken into the New Jersey market yet. It is one of the handful of companies suing the state to overturn the Health Department’s rejection of their application from last year.
While 1906 awaits a decision, it is once again taking an activist approach to its future.
Cornell joined the board for HeadCount’s Cannabis Voter Project, a national nonprofit that organized voter registration drives at concerts and festivals. The pandemic has forced the group’s work online.
Sam D’Arcangelo of the Cannabis Voter Project called Cornell “an incredibly valuable asset to our board, which we put together last summer. The board meets once a month via video chat to offer guidance for our get-out-the-vote efforts.”
When she isn’t working, Cornell is phone-banking for the Biden/Harris campaign and spending time with her 7-year-old son.
“This year I taught my son tennis (which I played as a child and into college) and we’ve started freshwater fishing (which was something I did with my late father),” Cornell said. “I’m happiest doing something low-key outside in the warm weather — beach, gardening, hiking.”
She adds she’s been a member of her local CSA for more than a decade where she picks fruit and veggies in the fields. “Coming home to cook/prepare them is immensely gratifying,” she said.
Cornell said she is launching a national cannabis advisory group with other former government officials and regulators, to help guide states entering the growing cannabis market.
“One of the biggest things I bring to the table is I was a public policy person long before cannabis. That voice is critical talking with regulators and legislators,” Cornell said. “I raise questions people don’t, such as, ‘What is a hospital going to think of this? Or Medicaid?’”
Even in adult-use states, 60% of consumers say they use the plant for medicinal reasons, Cornell said.
“Cannabis is here to stay, in my mind. I hope to guide public health professionals and physicians to have meaningful conversations with their patients,” she said. “I have seen so many people who were addicted to opioids and struggling with anxiety and insomnia — and cannabis has turned their lives around.”
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Susan K. Livio may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @SusanKLivio.