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Gov. Phil Murphy names new legal weed commissioner, heeding calls for Black men on panel


TRENTON -The regulatory body charged with overseeing legal weed and medical marijuana in New Jersey has yet to have its first meeting but already has seen its first shake-up.

Gov. Phil Murphy on Wednesday appointed Charles Barker as the fifth and final member of the state's Cannabis Regulatory Commission, answering calls that the agency in charge of legal weed have the voice of a social justice advocate, as required by law, and a Black man, the demographic most likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. 

Barker works as a policy staffer for U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, where he has focused on areas of criminal justice reform and marijuana legalization, as well as the economy and technology. He also works with the National Action Network civil rights group founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton. 

"As a young Black man from an underserved neighborhood in New Jersey, I am humbled to join the Cannabis Regulatory Commission and bring my perspective to the table," Barker said in a news release. “For generations, the misguided War on Drugs has devastated entire families and communities.

"I know this experience first-hand from being unjustly profiled and pulled over, illegally searched, and scolded many times by the police simply for the color of my skin. This is very real for me."

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Barker's appointment comes after Murphy faced criticism for not appointing any Black men to the CRC. According to the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, Black people are three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, despite similar usage rates.

Black men make up the vast majority of those marijuana arrests  

Shortly after Murphy announced the CRC appointments, the New Jersey chapter of the NAACP demanded the governor's office release qualifications of the employees and threatened to sue.

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By law, the governor is allowed to appoint three members to the commission, with the other two appointed by the Senate president and Assembly speaker. 

But one of the appointees must represent a "national organization or state branch of a national organization with a stated mission of studying, advocating, or adjudicating against minority historical oppression, past and present discrimination, unemployment, poverty and income inequality, and other forms of social injustice or inequality," according to the medical marijuana laws that established the CRC in July 2019.

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CRC chair Dianna Houenou, Murphy’s senior policy adviser, previously worked as a policy director for the ACLU of New Jersey. But her direct appointment to the commission stemmed from her role as a state employee — not a representative of the ACLU. 

"I am sincerely disappointed that the NAACP had to go to such lengths to ensure that the marijuana legalization law was followed and that this commission was reflective of the communities most harmed by this failed war on drugs," NAACP State Conference President Richard Smith said in a statement. "(Barker) and I have had the opportunity to talk and he truly understands the importance of this commission and his pivotal role to ensure the law is implemented correctly."

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Barker replaces William Wallace, a labor advocate with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 342, who will instead become the commission's labor relations director. 

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Murphy also appointed Maria Del Cid, policy and legislative services director at the New Jersey Department of Health, to the CRC.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin appointed Sam Delgado, a retired public affairs executive with Verizon, and husband of Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez, D-Middlesex.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney appointed Krista Nash, who serves as director for the Program for Returning Offenders with Mental Illness Safely Effectively with the Delaware Valley chapter of Volunteers of America. She is married to Camden County Commissioner Jeff Nash. 

Per state law, cannabis commissioners can receive a salary of up to $125,000, while the chair can receive a maximum $141,000 salary. Salaries are set by the governor's office.

Mike Davis has spent the last decade covering New Jersey local news, marijuana legalization, transportation and basically whatever else is going on at any given moment. Contact him at mdavis@gannettnj.com or @byMikeDavis on Twitter.