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Chris Christie’s Ominous Shadow

Mark Miller

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New Jersey legalized medical marijuana in 2009. But Governor Chris Christie has fought legal cannabis—medical or recreational—since taking office. Now he wants to be president.

“What I’m not willing to do is legalize or permit recreational use or things that will lead to that. And so that’s the line that I’ve drawn in the sand.” Those were the words of New Jersey Governor (and potential Republican presidential candidate) Chris Christie, speaking at a town-hall meeting in March 2014.

As governor, Christie has been an uncompromising opponent of recreational pot and has even obstructed implementation of the state’s medical marijuana law. But now some New Jerseyans have had enough. In February, a high-profile coalition of organizations, collectively dubbed New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, announced a campaign to legalize recreational cannabis in the Garden State. The pro-bud bloc is composed of the New Jersey Municipal Prosecutors Association, the state chapters of the ACLU and the NAACP, and LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition).

The coalition isn’t pushing for specific legislation at this time, but rather intends to study developments in Colorado and Washington in order to craft the best legalization law for New Jersey. The group is also mounting an informational campaign, hosting workshops and lectures aimed at educating Jersey residents on the benefits of legal cannabis.

This renewed effort comes a year after State Senator Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) introduced a bill in the New Jersey legislature to legalize recreational pot, which has yet to be released for debate. Though Scutari, a prosecutor in Linden, expects his bill to get an airing this year, he made a telling comment to The Philadelphia Inquirer: “I’m not in a huge hurry to get [the bill] to the governor’s desk. In the next two and a half years I’m hoping for a groundswell of support so that it will pass.”  

“Two and a half years” is a reference to the state’s term-limits law, which ensures that after Christie leaves office in 2017, he won’t be able to run for governor again until 2021.

Christie’s obnoxious and bullying style of governance is well known. In April 2014, while appearing on his monthly radio show Ask the Governor, he dismissed the idea that legal cannabis would provide much-needed revenue for the state, saying: “For the people who are enamored with the idea [of] tax revenue … go to Colorado and see if you want to live there.” Thanks to legalization, he added, the state now has “headshops popping up on every corner and people flying into the airport just to come and get high.”

That same month, Christie was confronted at a town-hall meeting by Paula Joana of Hopatcong, whose 15-month-old daughter Sabina died in December 2013 from epileptic seizures brought on by Dravet syndrome. A tearful Joana lambasted Christie: “This is what happens when you don’t get the proper medical marijuana program installed.”

In response, Christie offered some sympathetic noises—he was “horribly sorry” the child died—and then had the gall to say he’d be open to making changes in the medical pot program for the “truly sick” (i.e., the reason the program was created in the first place). But Christie had already slighted the “truly sick” when, in January 2014, he used a “pocket veto” to quietly kill a bill that would have enabled medical pot patients to receive organ transplants. And at a town-hall meeting in July 2014, the ever-open-minded Christie barred a group of pot protesters from even entering the space.

There have also been intentional barriers set up by Christie’s administration to stymie any discussion of cannabis. An attempt to contact his office was made for this article: After being transferred by the receptionist, an unidentified woman hung up on this reporter without a word of response. Other attempts to call the number for the New Jersey Department of Health’s medical marijuana program were met by perpetual busy signals or nonstop ringing with no answer. Nor does the governor’s official website cite “medical marijuana” as a topic important to his office, despite a comprehensive list of other subjects to choose from.

Ironically, although Christie has criticized the Drug War in the past and has even admitted the inevitability of legal cannabis, his personal ambition has taken precedence over the people whose lives are being ruined by the War on Drugs. The governor’s opposition to cannabis is steeped in his own dreams of running for president in 2016. He knows that allowing legal pot on his watch might not fare well with his party, so he prefers the status quo—21,000 pot arrests in the Garden State every year—and proclaims that legalization is “not going to come while I’m here.”

Moreover, a President Christie would likely seek to overturn the current Justice Department policy not to prosecute state-legal cannabusinesses. There’s also the possibility that he could appoint judges with anti-marijuana track records as prosecutors; bar legal pot industries from doing business with financial institutions; or empower the DEA to resume raids on legal weed retailers, dispensaries and cultivators.

So there’s really only one advantage to a “Christie for President” campaign: He’d be vacating the governor’s office in 2017, allowing New Jersey to finally implement a viable medical pot program while moving toward legalizing recreational cannabis outright.

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