Bill Caruso remembers the call. It was shortly after he helped start New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, an advocacy group helping to push legalization in the state Legislature, in 2013.
As an already well-established star in Trenton — one whose well-spoken manner and obvious character give him traits more representative of Alex P. Keaton than Jeff Spicoli — the move seemed out of place.
At least, that’s how one legislator felt.
“When I started on the advocacy side, a mentor of mine called me on the phone and literally said, ‘What the hell are you doing? You’re throwing your career away here.’ ”
Caruso didn’t waver.
Four years later, he feels advocates for legalizing cannabis for recreational use in New Jersey are not only closer to reaching their goal, they are closer to being able to jump-start the state’s economy.
At least that was his message at The Business of Cannabis, the latest NJBIZ panel discussion, held recently at the Raritan Valley Country Club in Bridgewater.
“There’s a demand now to move to legalization that not only (allows) patients who need the help to get it, but gives entrepreneurs the ability to start new businesses and develop an economy here that we haven’t seen,” the Archer & Greiner lawyer said.
“There are going to be opportunities for recreational use for cannabis. Dispensaries that you see out in Colorado and other jurisdictions, like a Starbucks-type shop where you are going to be to avail yourself of cannabis rather than coffee.
“It will be highly regulated and a lot like we see in the liquor industry.”
Then came the kicker.
Legalizing cannabis, he said, is not about recreating scenes out of a Cheech and Chong movie, but rebuilding the state’s economy. All of it.
From health care to higher ed, transportation to warehousing, Big Pharma to small farmers, Caruso feels the cannabis industry will touch all aspects of the state economy.
“There’s a whole other world that’s coming,” he said.
Just follow the money.
“When we started this advocacy, we started to look at where the revenue is going to flow from, from a tax revenue perspective,” he said. “An organization that we partnered with identified about $300 million in tax revenue that would come from the recreational sale side of marijuana.
“That’s nice. That’s a decent chunk of change. But then we looked at a billion dollars in new tax revenue and that’s going to come from servicing this new industry.”
The potential is almost unlimited.
“It’s going to come from law firms adding new attorneys that are going to be servicing this new industry, and from all the service support industries that are going to support all of these different things,” he said. “But it’s also going to come from things like warehousing. We have vacant warehouse space up and down this state that Amazon isn’t going to use because it’s that old stock warehouse, but it can be retrofitted into grow facilities.
“We have old lab space from the pharma industry that once dominated New Jersey that sits vacant right now. We have the ability to build a new pharma economy here.”
The best thing, Caruso said, is that New Jersey has all the advantages.
“We have jewels that no one else has around the country,” he said. “We are approximate to phenomenal wealth, we’re close to phenomenal transportation, we have phenomenally highly educated workers. Jersey sits in a beautifully opportunity right now to be able to tap into this like no other state in the nation does.”
Caruso feels the next governor, no matter which party, will support the measure.
“We’re going to legalize marijuana here, and probably in the first 100 days of next year,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean his fight is over.
Caruso knows there are still naysayers. He says he battles them one at a time. Slowly, but surely, he feels he is winning.
“It’s constant attention to dealing with members of the Legislature and members of the public, and debunking rumors,” he said. “We’re doing this through social media, we’re doing this through advocacy with legislators, we’re doing this through public committee meetings alike and forums like this in the business community.”
And he’s done it as a team from the beginning.
“What we did was, we brought doctors, municipal prosecutors, we brought law enforcement folks, we brought advocates from civil rights organizations to sit down and have conversations,” he said. “We’re winning hearts and minds one by one by one. It’s slow and arduous, but it’s the right way.
“When we started this effort, cannabis legalization in New Jersey was polling in the 40s. Not great, not a winning argument. We’re in the 60s right now, moving to the 70s.”
That old legislator? He’s on board now.
Caruso, however, knows there always will be opponents.
In fact, there’s one person he will never convince.
“My mom,” he said to laughs.
“She still cuts out the story every time I’m in the newspaper — except when it is connected to cannabis.”