Scott Rudder has been a lot of things in his life — an Army veteran, a legislator, mayor of Medford, an executive at Lockheed Martin, a lobbyist — but for Rob Cressen he’s been something more.
“He’s family to me,” said Cressen, 49, of Toms River. “I’ve had a couple tough years — I lost my dad and I lost my nephew — and Scott’s been there for me the entire time. No matter what.”
Cressen, the former executive director of the New Jersey Republican Party who first worked with Rudder in the state Assembly when both men were in their 20s, has had a rough road over the past decade. In 2011, Cressen was diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome after a leg break he sustained while competing in a triathlon caused an infection that damaged part of his brain.
The result, Cressen said, is that “my brain only tells my body to make pain.”
“Drain all the blood out of your veins, fill them with lighter fluid and set it on fire,” he said. “That’s how I feel every moment of every day.”
In the wake of his diagnosis, Cressen was fully supplied with opioids for the pain but they impacted his ability to function and led to addiction. It was Rudder and others, Cressen said, who suggested transitioning to medical cannabis.
“Without medical cannabis, I wouldn’t be able to function on many days,” he said.
Rudder, 51, who founded and serves as the president of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, a cannabis industry trade group, said the difference medical cannabis has made in Cressen’s life was remarkable.
“He met a doctor who helped transition him from opioids to medical cannabis and now he uses medical cannabis for his pain mitigation treatment,” Rudder said. “It’s really had a visible difference. And Rob, when you talk to him on the phone or have a meeting with him in person, he’s just different in a very positive way now, and he thanks cannabis for that.”
Moreover, Rudder, who is also part of a team who filed an application in last year’s stalled medical cannabis licensing process, said, Cressen helps ground the NJCBA.
“Certainly as a business organization, you’re thinking of dollars and cents, but we can’t forget why we’re here,” Rudder said. “Our mission is to serve patients and Rob is the constant reminder of that at all of our meetings.”
That grounding remains at the forefront for Rudder as Election Day and the upcoming ballot referendum on adult-use legalization draws nearer. Rudder said he’s optimistic the ballot question will pass in November because polling shows a majority of voters understand the economic and social justice benefits of legalization.
“Wouldn’t it be better to generate $300 million in new revenue for the state of New Jersey instead of costing taxpayers $147 million annually to arrest and prosecute simple possession charges?” Rudder said. “Is it better to create thousands and thousands of jobs instead of arresting 36,000 people annually for simple possession? I think people understand that message, particularly now as we’re dealing with COVID and the economic destruction that shutting down businesses has done to our economy, not just in New Jersey, but across the country and around the world.”
While that messaging may be apparent today, it wasn’t an easy sell back in 2016 for many.
“Before I came out of the cannabis closet, if you will, and announced the launching of the NJCBA, I wrote an op-ed piece that kind of explained my journey and I did that for a couple reasons,” Rudder said. “One is I wanted just to get out there publicly, I’m not ashamed of what I do. I’m very proud of what I do.”
Even so, Rudder said, he’d run into friends who’d have a look of disappointment in their eyes over his pivot and explaining the change to his four children, who range in age from 11 to 19, was another conversation altogether.
But, again, it was Cressen and the impact medical cannabis made in his life who helped cut through stigma. This proved especially invaluable for Rudder recently, who, in a recent column for NJ Cannabis Insider, discussed his mother’s diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease and his conversation with her about the potential relief medical cannabis could provide.
“The conversation from 2016 to 2020 has shifted dramatically and the acceptance of cannabis, as a medicine has grown significantly,” said Rudder. “But cannabis as a legal and regulated product out there, that’s going to resolve a lot of different challenges that we currently face, whether it’s civil liberties, economic opportunities, or I just want something healthier than going to the liquor store. I think people have seen it not just for my organization, but just nationally, how things have progressed.”
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Justin Zaremba may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinZarembaNJ.