Bill Caruso was throwing away his career; he was doing something silly; why wasn’t he being a good lawyer and just sticking to representing client interests?
He was being reminded regularly by colleagues, mentors and the rest that he was reckless for volunteering so much of his time to advocating for marijuana reform.
Caruso, a father of three, started to believe it was as much a risk to his livelihood as he was being told, especially because his support for this issue dated back to a time when even the push for the use of medicinal cannabis, never mind recreational use, didn’t have an iota of legitimacy.
It felt like only yesterday. In some ways, it was.
“In no time, it’s become not a question of whether the state will ever legalize — it’s now what will it look like,” he said.
Caruso figures to have some say in that, too.
Phil Murphy is headed into the New Jersey governor’s seat on the back of a campaign that pledged a number of things, including to sign a recreational marijuana legalization bill into law within the first 100 days of his term.
“Now, I don’t expect he’ll walk off the inaugural podium and put a bill in the state Legislature,” Caruso said. “But it’s enough of a priority that I’d except to see quick work in February and March to get off it the ground.”
Increasing the legalization of cannabis would be a victory more than a decade in the making for Caruso, of counsel at Archer & Greiner P.C. He first found inspiration in local pioneers of marijuana reform, the late Cheryl Miller and her husband, Jim Miller.
“She had multiple sclerosis, and her husband pushed her on a wheelchair all across the state,” he said. “You couldn’t not be touched by such a tremendous act of love. And their only motivation was to get attention for the use of marijuana to treat pain and other symptoms.”
After years of fighting for relevancy in the medicinal space, New Jersey became the 14th state to legalize marijuana for ill patients, at the tail end of former Gov. Jon Corzine’s term in 2010.
Caruso said the law then lay dormant for a number of reasons, and was never fully implemented.
Caruso himself got involved more directly in a movement to legalize both recreational and medicinal marijuana by helping start New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform in 2013. That was under Gov. Chris Christie, when Caruso said activists were aware they faced an uphill battle.
The alliance of activist organizations that formed that group steered the local legalization push to where it is today — that is, on the precipice of conversations about what should go into an actual law under a Gov. Murphy.
A key motivation for New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform always has been creating a controlled and regulated system to address the high number of annual marijuana possession arrests that disproportionately affect black Jerseyans.
Caruso said he also is driven by that justice mission, helping an incarcerated population that otherwise has no special interest groups to call on for support. But he understands that for legalization to hold wide appeal, a careful balance needs to be struck in the narrative surrounding it.
“What the folks in Trenton want to hear — and, frankly, the general public — is about public safety,” he said. “They want to understand how it’s not going to affect crime in a negative way.”
Caruso said that, based on the data that has come out of states that have legalized already, one of the most important messages is this: Cannabis may not affect your life at all … and that’s OK.
“You may never use it yourself, and rarely see it used,” he said, “but you may benefit from the increased tax revenue that’s coming into the state or the new jobs that could be added as industries come together around it.”
Murphy’s own projection is that legal marijuana could bring in $300 million a year in tax revenue. And, as Caruso alluded to, pot legalization could open the door for a new sector of businesses.
“This is a hotbed for innovation and the potential for an industry to be created,” he said. “You’ll need security firms, lab testing, manufacturing and packaging. You’re going to see small and large businesses of all sorts springing up.”
Cannabis industry watchers already are perceiving that interest in the form of venture dollars moving in a Garden State direction.
“For the global cannabis industry, New Jersey is on their map for next year,” Caruso said. “When we first started this effort, we were jumping up with our hair on fire saying, ‘Look at New Jersey!’ But, no one was paying attention. That has changed significantly.”
Max Crane, managing partner at Sills Cummis & Gross P.C., said his law firm has been taking up business with the investment side of this new industry.
However, signaling potential hurdles for cannabis businesses, his law firm has put limits on its involvement in this area due to the ambiguity in the interaction between state and federal marijuana laws.
“Our clients want us to be a step removed from the growing process,” Crane said. “So, we do work with the finance and venture capital side of cannabis — with people looking at all kinds of investments right now — but we try to stay away from the actual grow farms.”
John McWeeney of the New Jersey Bankers Association also said that banking institutions — as essential as they are to securing the requisite capital to launch a business — may be in the same (or worse) boat.
“It’s a difficult issue with it remaining illegal at the federal level and banks being regulated by federal regulators,” McWeeney said. “We’d probably be very averse to lending to marijuana businesses because of those problems. It’s something all banks here are discussing.”
Given how far Caruso has seen the acceptability of a marijuana reform platform come, he takes the fact that these discussions are being had as a sign of progress. And he also expects the uncertainties to be worked out with time.
He pointed out that those conversations also are ongoing at his own firm, Archer & Greiner — a stalwart law firm founded on Quaker roots.
“You’re starting to see this across the board in some of the traditional segments of the business and the legal community, with people saying, ‘Let’s sit down and figure this out and make sure it’s going to work for us,’” Caruso said.
Almost overnight, Caruso saw the commercial real estate sector stop giving short shrift to the idea that cannabis companies will set up shop here. These firms are now eyeing open warehouse spaces up and down the New Jersey Turnpike as potentially attractive to these businesses, he said.
“There are so many people reorienting where they are on this issue,” he said. “There are farmers we’ve heard from that have asked how they can be a part of this instead of being shut out, allowing outdoor cultivation in a way that has been prohibited elsewhere.”
That doesn’t mean Caruso is overlooking the potential stumbling blocks that lie ahead for legalization to actually make it into New Jersey law, even with Trenton likely to be gearing up for it within the next few months.
“The wheels are turning, but there’s still a lot of open questions,” he said. “You have partisan disagreement. You have industries such as the alcohol industry, which has tremendous influence, looking to either have a say over this or to bar it. … You also have issues with DUI enforcement to address. The good news is, we have organizations such as AAA stepping up to discuss it rather than stop it.”
If it all pans out, Caruso’s experience with marijuana legalization advocacy may even one day make its way into a more formalized capacity in his legal career — in spite of all those naysayers.
“For me, personally, I’m fortunate to have a diverse practice area,” he said. “I expect as this new economy continues to grow, I’ll be involved on this side, too.”
Caruso admits becoming an advocate for cannabis reform was the right move in hindsight, but acknowledges his career could have easily gone to pot, too.
“We may have been having a different conversation if I had to move out of my house because I wasn’t working anymore or something like that,” he joked.