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New Jersey’s Medical Cannabis Pioneer Ken Wolski

“One person really makes a difference in the health of 9 million people."

On a muggy July day, six months into legalization, Northeast Leaf sat down with Ken Wolski. In a baby blue house on a shady side street, tucked at the end of an avenue like an afterthought, we discussed his decades of activism, legal Cannabis, and the battles to come.

“One person really makes a difference in the health of 9 million people,” according to Ken Wolski.

The Cannabis crusader wasn’t talking about himself, but a different man who controls plenty. 

“New Jersey has one of the most powerful governors in the country,” asserts Ken.

For nearly a decade, the previous governor delayed and obstructed medical Cannabis – however, consumers and patients were optimistic when Phil Murphy took office in 2018.

“One of the things that Gov. Murphy did in his first week,” said Ken, “is sign executive order #6 to expand and ease access to Medical Cannabis.”

While Cannabis is legal for adult use as of this year, the fight isn’t over.

The Fight for New Jersey Cannabis Reform

As a nurse and administrator for New Jersey’s Department of Corrections, Ken worked under both major political parties. He doesn’t think Cannabis is a partisan issue, though.

“I was in government for 25 years,” Ken said. “I actually made out better under Republicans than Democrats.” When he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2012, it was with Green Party backing.

Much like his black bowtie – littered with bright green Cannabis print – Ken is serious without being stuffy. He’ll happily tell you about his favorite strains, but he’ll also share that he often can’t find them.

“Is there enough marijuana? Well, no,” said Ken. “There are still shortages.” While he’s trying to change things, thankfully he’s not fighting alone.

Ken co-founded the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey (CMMNJ) in 2003, where he works alongside other dedicated advocates. This includes Jo Anne Zito, a fellow Cannabis crusader and CMMNJ board member, who is pushing lawmakers to pass “Jeff’s Law” (S3582/A5552). The bill adds home growing as an affordable alternative to NJ’s “Alternative Treatment Centers,” the medical Cannabis retailers.

“There are still too few dispensaries, there’s no home delivery, and Cannabis is still unaffordable for many.” Jo Anne told us. CMMNJ believes home growing will make Cannabis more affordable and ensure the strains patients need.

Leading a Coalition for Change

With his glasses, button-down shirt, and black bowtie, you might mistake Ken for a professor. Don’t let the formalities fool you, though. His fight to fix New Jersey’s Cannabis laws outlasted half a dozen administrations, even before a governor named Christie began his own war.

Voters elected Chris Christie in 2009. The outgoing governor had signed a bill that made New Jersey the fourteenth state to allow medical Cannabis on his last day, but as the state’s new chief executive, Christie fought the law’s execution.

“The regulations that Christie proposed were so bad,” said Ken. “The entire legislature passed a resolution.” The state senate voted 22-16 to reject Christie’s initial rules. That forced him to re-write, but he used his powerful office to cripple medical Cannabis.

Eight years later, Christie left NJ medical Cannabis little better than when he found it, failing many patients. Half a dozen dispensaries served the entire state. Poor quality products and inflated prices were the norm.

In 2017, voters chose Phil Murphy to govern New Jersey. Murphy campaigned on legal Cannabis and supports the program, but for advocates like Ken, the fight is far from over. He shows no signs of slowing down.

“We had a model bill in 2005,” said Ken, referring to medical Cannabis. “It allowed for home cultivation, it allowed for recognition of out-of-state ID cards, it allowed for chronic pain. All of that was taken out before the bill passed.”

Regardless of the incessant hurdles, CMMNJ won’t rest until affordable and equitable Cannabis is a reality.

Filtering a Crowded Highlight Reel

Discussing Ken’s decades of work, a single page seemed too small to cover it. Luckily, awards from organizations like NORML do a better job. The lobbying group honored Ken in 2016 with the Peter McWilliams Memorial Award, recognizing “outstanding achievement in advancing the cause of medical marijuana.” 

“Ken has inspired and guided many others to take action, including myself,” Jo Anne told us. “I’m thankful for his work, inspiration, and friendship.”

Ken and CMMNJ will continue the fight, along with their allies, no matter who’s in power. For them, it’s all about achieving real change for New Jersey.

“There are a number of post-legalization goals that we have,” said Ken. “Legalization is only one step in marijuana and drug policy reform.”

Photos by @P_Aiden_Hunt

This article was originally published in the September 2021 issue of Northeast Leaf.

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