On Feb. 22, when New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed three bills that in part legalized recreational marijuana, Amanda Hoover was in her bedroom typing furiously. Because of COVID-19, the reporter covering the cannabis industry for NJ Advance Media — like other journalists who were closely following the story — was working remotely.
When the deadline for Murphy to sign the bill came and went, Hoover made a bunch of calls to sources to try to figure out if he had signed it or not.
“That was a wild day,” Hoover said. “This had stopped and started so many times that nothing was a home run, ever.”
It had been more than three years since Murphy took office with a pledge to legalize marijuana, with many obstacles and negotiations along the way.
With New Jersey becoming the 13th state to legalize weed, local journalists covering the industry are now faced with more beats and stories to explore. A few journalists spoke to Poynter about what they’re hoping to report on and examine more closely now.
“When we plan our events and, even in our sourcing, we really do try to focus on diversity and representation and talking about a lot of those issues in the different stories. That really has been a significant piece of the New Jersey conversation,” said Hoover, who also writes for NJ Cannabis Insider, a weekly premium product from NJ.com that offers exclusive analysis from a team of cannabis reporters, as well as exclusive networking opportunities and VIP conferences.
“There’s been lots of push for tax revenue to go to communities that have been affected by the drug war,” Hoover said. “There’s a lot of diverse voices in the space that you can, as a reporter, go to and elevate those… I think that’s going to be a big part of it.”
Hoover said she’s reported on police still arresting people for weed, adding that those arrested are disproportionately Black. “Going forward, there’s a lot of commitments to social and racial equity in the bill, and I’m really interested to see if they honor those,” Hoover said.
Mike Davis, who covers marijuana legalization and local news for the Asbury Park Press, said it’s a “pretty weird moment” to cover marijuana in New Jersey.
“It’s almost as if I’ve spent the better part of the last three or four years covering and writing this one specific story about New Jersey legalizing marijuana. And now that it’s been signed into law, it’s almost as if we’re entering the second chapter,” Davis said in an email. “I don’t think the reporting itself is going to change: There are going to be a ton of snags along the way as the state tries to reckon with this new reality and, frankly, that should be expected with a major policy shift like this. And as more people get involved in the process, especially those who had been quiet or outright opposed to legalization before, it’s going to bring new issues to light.”
As a reporter, Davis said it’s important to be self-aware, and to take a step back from the day-to-day coverage and realize how historic a time this is for New Jersey and the rest of the country.
Last November, New Jersey voters backed a ballot question that permitted the possession, sale and use of marijuana for adults 21 and over. Davis said the campaign was driven by the idea of social justice. When asked which stories he plans on prioritizing for the Asbury Park Press, Davis said it’s going to be interesting to see how the rollout of the “social justice” provisions of these laws goes.
Jelani Gibson, content lead for NJ Cannabis Insider, said he will focus on business and regulation at the intersection of how people are going to get their foot in the door of this industry.
“We do not live in a country that has a problem sustaining wealth, we live in a country that has a problem with making the opportunity to create wealth as inclusive as possible,” he said. “The cannabis industry can ride in the spectrum of that possibility, but journalists have to play a responsible role in factually and proactively laying out the infrastructure that is needed and has not been built in order to do so.”
Gibson joined the team in January after reporting on gun violence at The Kansas City Star through Report for America. “It’s my job to cover how the ecosystem of business is going to evolve in a state that has also seen systemic injustices towards BIPOC populations,” he said.
Last month, Gibson reported on Leo Bridgewater, a longtime Trenton-based cannabis advocate who was named among 10 recipients in a national business accelerator program for underrepresented entrepreneurs in the industry.
“Cannabis is often covered in a silo where business and regulation is not being talked about alongside social justice, and what we have to understand is that — in the same way that injustice is a business and is a regulated one at that — so, too, must justice,” Gibson said.
NJ Cannabis Insider will be hosting a talk on home cultivation and hemp with its subscribers on April 13.
“I think that what I’m prioritizing right now is the fact that New Jersey doesn’t yet have a legal marketplace,” said Sam Sutton, Politico New Jersey’s health care reporter. “They passed this constitutional amendment, they passed the enabling legislation to get that done. There was a big fight over underage possession that held up the signing of that enabling legislation, along with the decriminalization bill. All of it’s on the books, but now they have to set it up.”
Covering the many twists and turns to this historic moment over the past few years was both extremely hectic and exciting, Sutton said.
“It was just a really, really exciting beat, and it was a story I was tracking for three years,” he said. “There was certainly an amount of pressure and excitement that comes with seeing a story that you’ve been following for a long period of time reach its climax, and then fall in action.”