A social justice advocate is criticizing the makeup of New Jersey’s new Cannabis Regulatory Commission because none of its five seats are held by a Black man.
“There’s no one on the commission who has lived experience with the brutalities of the drug war,” said Rev. Dr. Charles Boyer, the founder of the group Salvation and Social Justice. “There’s no one here who knows what it has been like to have been arrested or incarcerated. There’s no one here who was ever in the underground market.”
Governor Phil Murphy announced the final members of the commission on Thursday—days after signing legislation to legalize the sale of marijuana in the state. Its chair, Dianna Houenou, a former ACLU attorney, is Black. The other four seats are held by a Latina, one white woman, one white man, and one Latino man.
Murphy, a Democrat, began campaigning four years ago to legalize cannabis as a social justice issue; he said legalization would end the disproportionately high percentage of arrests of Black and brown men, compared to whites.
On Monday, he signed three bills to legalize marijuana, hailing it as “a monumental step forward to reduce racial disparities in our criminal justice system.”
But on Friday, Murphy did not answer a specific question from Gothamist/WNYC as to whether the inclusion of a Black man on the board was a consideration. Murphy did provide a statement through a representative.
“The governor understands that Black men have been the demographic most harmed by racially-discriminatory criminal justice policies and expects the Commission to prioritize diversity in its hiring in the months ahead,” said Michael Zhadanovsky, a spokesperson for Governor Murphy. “Furthermore, the Board is majority women and majority minority.”
Initially created over a year ago to oversee the state’s medical marijuana program, the Cannabis Regulatory Commission has since been given authority under the new legalization laws to determine who can sell and grow marijuana.
The commission will also determine the social programs that will receive portions of revenue from an industry that could eventually raise hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
Governor Murphy appointed three members of the board, including Houenou, who previously worked on cannabis policy for the New Jersey ACLU. Murphy’s other two appointees are Maria Del Cid and William Wallace.
The state’s legislative leaders, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, both Democrats, also had one nomination each. They appointed Sam Delgado and Krista Nash, respectively.
Spokespeople for Coughlin and Sweeney did not return requests for comment.
Boyer, who is a minister at the Bethel AME church in Woodbury, New Jersey, said it’s critical that the voices of Black men be heard “in order to inform where those dollars go and be able to advocate for just distribution of those dollars.”
Black New Jerseyans are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, according to a study of ten years worth of arrests released last year by the ACLU.
“Black men have been the most targeted demographic of cannabis prohibition—well over-represented in the population that police targeted and folks who have been devastated financially and otherwise because of law enforcement,” Boyer said.
The laws that Murphy signed this week create an excise fee on growers—plus 70% of the revenue from a sales tax—that will go to “Impact Zones” that have been disproportionately affected by prohibition. Those funds will be used for education, economic development, and legal assistance. The law also incentivizes the state to grant licenses to people living in Impact Zones.
Minors charged with first-time marijuana possession will receive a written warning on the first offense, parental notification on the second, and possibly counseling for subsequent offenses. Police will also be prohibited from using the smell of marijuana to justify searches.
“We’re very happy that the least punitive measures have been deeply considered when it comes down to youth,” Boyer said.
“Where we’re gonna look now is, what do the regulations look like? What do the implementations look like?” Boyer continued.
“As the tax revenue gets generated, we’re gonna be taking a very deep look at, and be advocating for, those funds coming back to the communities, and the way they were intended. Not to non-profit organizations that are run by cronies and folks who are owed political favors who happen to have a nonprofit organization…but actually hit the grassroots.”