Calling her the right person at the right time to lead the state’s effort to create a marketplace for recreational marijuana that he wants to be equitable, fair and inclusive of all communities, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Friday the appointment of Dianna Houenou as chair of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission.
The announcement comes three days after New Jersey voters overwhelmingly approved a measure to legalize recreational use of cannabis.
Murphy, who has pushed for such legalization since he was running for office, also said Jeff Brown will serve as executive director of the commission. Murphy also will appoint Krista Nash as a member of the commission, upon the recommendation of Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford).
The Cannabis Regulatory Commission, once fully constituted, will both regulate New Jersey’s medical marijuana marketplace and now also will provide oversight to the soon-to-be-established recreational marijuana marketplace.
Houenou currently serves as senior policy adviser and associate counsel to Murphy, advising on policy issues concerning criminal justice, military and veterans, community affairs, and immigrants’ rights matters. She previously worked as policy counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, where she developed legislative strategies for ACLU advocacy campaigns and led the organization’s coalitions advocating for marijuana legalization.
“Dianna has been a critical voice for social justice and equity on my team for the past year and a half after spending several years working on the fight to legalize marijuana with the ACLU,” Murphy said. “Her commitment to doing what is right and to leaving no one behind has powered our criminal justice reform agenda, and I am immensely proud that she will be continuing that commitment as chair of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission.
“Since Day One, we have said that the legalization of recreational marijuana must prioritize the communities marginalized and decimated by the failed War on Drugs.”
Murphy also praised Brown, who has spent the past three years overseeing the state’s medical marijuana program as an assistant commissioner.
“Jeff’s leadership overseeing the state’s medicinal marijuana program has contributed greatly to our efforts to expand access to those who need it,” Murphy said. “He will bring the same integrity, care and expertise that have led to the success of our medicinal marijuana program to his new role as executive director of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, where he will play a key role in establishing our recreational marijuana marketplace.”
Houenou stressed Tuesday’s vote and her appointment are just the beginning of the process.
“Now that we have put ourselves on the right path, we must ensure that the next steps we take right the wrongs of the past,” she said. “My vision for the Cannabis Regulatory Commission is one that I know Gov. Murphy and Jeff both share. It is one that prioritizes equity and integrity, twin values, in its approach to regulating the medicinal and personal-use cannabis.
“I intentionally describe these as twin values because I believe you cannot have one without the other. For the cannabis industry to have integrity, it must be equitable. It must protect patient access, reflect the diversity of the state and reinvest revenues into the communities most harmed by prohibition.
“From promoting inclusion among license and permit holders, to making affirmative investments in the future of our communities of color, New Jersey is poised to mark its position as a leader in advancing racial and social justice. The opportunities for equity that lay ahead are limitless. And I look forward to seizing them for the benefit of New Jersey’s communities disproportionately harmed by past policies.”
Brown said expanding access to cannabis — one of his key initiatives — will continue.
“When I became assistant commissioner, I heard from cancer patients who struggled to access medical cannabis dispensaries, from mothers who were driving across the state to get the medication they needed for their kids with severe seizure disorders — people with terminal illness who were forced to go back to the doctor every three months just to confirm that they were still dying,” he said.
“That’s why we pursued aggressive changes at the division of medicinal marijuana. We’ve added new conditions that can be treated with medical cannabis, new dispensaries, new products, and have made it dramatically easier to be a patient in New Jersey. Because of our reforms, we will surpass 100,000 patients this month. And our work is not even close to being done.
“We need to continue to expand the market. We need to continue to add new products, and we need to continue to break down barriers for patients and their loved ones. Which is why I assure you that, even in this new role, I will continue to fight to ensure that our medical cannabis patients have access and continue to fight to make our program better.”
Murphy said he was thrilled the long wait to legalization is over.
“Legalization is a long time coming,” he said. “I know this is something that many of us had hoped that we could have already done through the legislative process. And many of our legislative partners have worked tremendously hard. Most notably, I want to give a shout-out to the guy with whom I had the very first conversation about this, Senate Judiciary Chairman Nick Scutari. But the votes of the people themselves are confirmation that we are on the right side of this issue.
“Today, the barrier of our failed marijuana laws that has kept so many of our residents from moving forward and prevented our economy from growing and expanding in a truly inclusive way, is about to fall. With Diana and Jeff leading the way, I know we will be successful in not just creating the marketplace that works for New Jersey, but one that will be a model for other states to follow.”
Houenou, a resident of Trenton, graduated from the University of North Carolina. She holds a J.D. from the University of North Carolina School of Law.
Brown grew up in Mercer County and graduated summa cum laude from Rutgers University. He is active in the community and serves on the advisory board of the New Jersey Chapter of the New Leaders Council.
Nash, who lives in Cherry Hill, is a longtime social justice advocate. She currently serves as program director of the PROMISE program at Volunteers of America Delaware Valley. She previously served as a mentor at Oaks Integrate Care and Transitions for Youth. Additionally, she serves on the Camden County Addiction Awareness Task Force.
She graduated from Rutgers-Camden and earned a Master of Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania.