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With New Jersey on the brink of approving the most detailed marijuana reform bill of any state, some observers say three women were integral to getting the process this far.

They include Assemblymember Annette Quijano, the prime sponsor of the legalization bill in that chamber; Dara Servis, the executive director of the New Jersey Cannabis Industry Association; and Dianna Houenou, described as an effective advocate as part of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ), particularly as part of the New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform.

“These women are trailblazers,” said Kelli Hykes, the director of government relations for Weedmaps. Each in their own ways, these three women not only helped move New Jersey to the brink of legalization, but were part of a process that has kept issues of social justice at the forefront.

Assemblymember Annette Quijano a prime sponsor of a bill legalizing marijuana in New Jersey.

“Details can get lost,” Hykes said. “That hasn't been the case in New Jersey in large part because of these very thoughtful women who have inserted themselves into what has been a boy's club.”

Many men and women have worked and advocated for fundamental change in New Jersey's legislation for years. The landscape shifted dramatically with the election of Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy in 2017.

Murphy campaigned on legalization, among other issues, arguing in terms of justice and fairness as much as for the likely budget-buoying revenue that taxed, regulated marijuana could bring.

Murphy replaced two-term Republican Gov. Chris Christie, a steadfast cannabis opponent and former U.S. attorney who many critics say dragged his feet on medicinal cannabis throughout his eight years as governor.

With Murphy in office, many expected fast action on legalization, with predictions there could be a measure on his desk within the first 100 days. Hykes said she believes those expectations were unrealistic — and possibly damaging. A slower pace gave lawmakers and advocates time to craft what she described as the most comprehensive adult-use legislation to date. It also allowed time to address the concerns of some critics and win over some skeptical lawmakers.

“Those conversations took a long time, but they were important,” Hykes said. “We have as close to perfect legislation as we're ever going to get.”

If the bill is approved as expected, New Jersey will the first states to legalize adult use through a legislative process rather than by referendum. But what strikes Hykes as more important is the level of detail that has gone into the New Jersey bill. In part, she said, that's because New Jersey learned from other states. As proposed, the bill will allow for home delivery, social consumption lounges, allow students to work under supervision in the industry, among other innovations.

Democratic state Sen. Nick Scutari was the chief sponsor of New Jersey's medical marijuana legislation in 2009 and presented an unsuccessful adult-use bill in 2014 and again in 2017. In the assembly, Quijano worked to include expungement of criminal records for marijuana offenses in the bill, which includes the concept in the title: the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory and Expungement Aid Modernization Act.

“She's been able to use that as a rallying point,” Hykes said.

“Personally, I think it is the single most important aspect of legalization,” Quijano said in an earlier interview with Weedmaps News. She described social justice as her primary motivation for supporting reform of the state's cannabis laws, saying, “All of the other benefits to legalizing adult-use cannabis are secondary.”

Learning from other states

For Dara Servis, executive director of the New Jersey Cannabis Industry Association, a trip to Colorado for a friend's wedding convinced her that the time had come for a change in New Jersey. She said she saw a thriving legal marketplace, with tax benefits improving Colorado schools, roads and more.

“I got back from Colorado and decided I was going to bring a legal market to New Jersey,” she said in a March 2019 interview. Servis had started with Cammarano, Layton, and Bombardieri Partners, a government relations firm in which she began pushing the partners to begin working on legal cannabis.

Dara Servis, executive director and co-founder of the New Jersey Cannabis Industry Association.

One of the first steps was to organize a fact-finding trip to Colorado in fall 2016, including lobbyists, legislators, and reporters.

“The sky didn't fall, the world didn't end,” she said. Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney gave Scutari the go-ahead to introduce his legislation, Servis said, “And I also was given the green light to act on what I wanted to develop.”

That included co-founding the New Jersey Cannabis Industry Association, modeled after some of the national organizations. She wanted the organization to set a model for the cannabis industry in New Jersey.

“I knew I wanted to be transparent in driving policy,” she said, and work with some of the existing organizations. She did not want what she described as a “dark arts, backroom, cloak-and-dagger” process.

Legal marijuana would not end New Jersey's intractable budget woes, but could improve things and potentially offer some property tax relief as well, she said. But it would have to be done right. It took a lot of work to get things to the current point, but Servis said despite some impatience, things have moved remarkably quickly over the past two years.

“New Jersey may not be the first state out of the gate on this, but we are likely to have one of the most progressive pieces of legislation in the country,” she said. “It's a pretty intensely thoughtful piece of legislation that a lot of people worked very hard on.”

That's meant listening to both advocates and critics to create a comprehensive bill. Some expect a vote soon, possibly by March 25, 2019, but according to Hykes, it's more important that the law is written well and that they have reached a point where it is ready to move forward. Expectations are for a close vote, although public opinion in New Jersey favors legalization, and that support is growing.

Momentum is building. On March 18, 2019, the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Assembly Appropriations Committee voted for companion bills that would legalize marijuana and offer expungement of prior cannabis convictions.

Hykes described Servis as coordinating the cannabis industry's voice in New Jersey. She said she is motivated by social justice issues but moves those issues in a way that rallies business leaders and points toward a responsible model for the industry in the state.

Each woman has been vital in the process, according to Hykes.

Social Justice at the Forefront  

As part of ACLU-NJ, Hykes said, Dianna Houenou helped keep social justice out front while the future of New Jersey's cannabis industry was being hammered out. But she also worked toward building a responsible marketplace.

Dianna Houenou, a policy advisor in the New Jersey Office of the Governor, formerly with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

 Houenou (pronounced WAY-new) sought to make sure children wouldn't get access to cannabis and also worked to clear unnecessary hurdles such as overly extensive buffer zones that might keep the industry from getting off the ground.

“It's all about finding that sweet spot, the balance between a free market and compliance,” Hykes said. Regulations need to preserve a safe and responsible marketplace and reassure communities while leaving room for a new industry to expand and innovate.

In March 2019, Houenou joined Murphy's staff to work on criminal justice and other issues, according to political news website

“My hope is that her role expands to serve on the cannabis industry commission once it's established,” Hykes said.

Houenou and Quijano each declined to be interviewed for this story. Staff members with Quijano's assembly office cited scheduling issues, while Houenou said she could not comment because she is no longer with the ACLU and therefore couldn't address the most recent developments in the legalization campaign.

A staff member with the governor's press office said they would offer no interviews because the legislation is not yet complete. The governor's office released a statement on March 12, 2019, announcing that the broad outlines of an agreement on legalization between Sweeney, Murphy, and the sponsors in both houses, including Scutari and Quijano.

"After months of discussions and debate, I am proud that we have come to an agreement on a bill to legalize adult-use cannabis,"  Quijano said in the statement. "We learned from stakeholders and listened to opponents. The final product is fair, responsible and focused on social justice."

“Legalizing adult-use marijuana is a monumental step to reducing disparities in our criminal justice system,” Murphy said in the release. “After months of hard work and thoughtful negotiations, I'm thrilled to announce an agreement with my partners in the Legislature on the broad outlines of adult-use marijuana legislation.