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Meet the head of the new N.J. Cannabis Regulatory Commission, ‘rock star’ Dianna Houenou

Gov. Phil Murphy called Dianna Houenou “a true rock star.” He appointed her to lead what could become a $2 billion industry in New Jersey.

Dianna Houenou, chair of the N.J. Cannabis Regulatory Commission.
Dianna Houenou, chair of the N.J. Cannabis Regulatory Commission.Read moreEdwin J. Torres / N.J. Governor’s Office

Gov. Phil Murphy last week named an aide he called “a true rock star” to oversee New Jersey’s soon-to-be legal marijuana industry.

Dianna Houenou will chair the five-member Cannabis Regulatory Commission, which will regulate all businesses producing and selling medical and recreational marijuana in the Garden State. She was once a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and most recently was counsel to Murphy.

In introducing Houenou during a news conference, Murphy called her “quite simply the right person at the right time.” The governor described Houenou as someone who will ensure that the new industry —which could potentially evolve into a market valued at $2 billion a year — will be “equitable, fair, and inclusive of all communities.”

Jeff Brown, currently assistant commissioner at the Department of Health for the medicinal marijuana program, will serve as the commission’s executive director.

Voters on Nov. 3 overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment legalizing recreational cannabis in New Jersey. The Garden State is now one of 15 states in which marijuana will be legal for all adults. Legislators in Trenton are drafting the laws and regulations that will shape the new industry. The amendment goes into effect Jan. 1, but it will likely take months before recreational marijuana is available for sale at state-approved retailers.

The Inquirer spoke with Houenou earlier this week. This interview has been edited for brevity.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I am originally from North Carolina, I was born, raised, and schooled there. My parents are both immigrants — from France and Benin, in West Africa. I came to New Jersey four years ago to work with the ACLU and was in charge of the state-wide coalition called New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform. I traveled up and down the state, talking about why cannabis is really an issue of racial justice and social justice.

I’m based in and live in Trenton.

How do you pronounce your last name?


Why is legalization an important civil rights issue?

It’s part of the broader reforms that need to be made in the criminal-justice system. Cannabis prohibition has clear roots in anti-Black discrimination and efforts to stifle and oppress people of color. While there’s been a lot of advancement over the years — the criminal-justice system has become more rehabilitative and healing rather than purely retributive — we still have a long way to go. The collateral consequences that flowed from cannabis arrests and incarceration still have a lasting impact, not only on the person arrested but on their entire families and communities.

The war on drugs, however, was not just meant to target Black communities. The messaging painted people who used drugs as irredeemable. And that’s not true. As Bryan Stevenson [a nationally known lawyer and criminal justice reformer] said, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done.”

How did you get involved with marijuana?

Professionally, because it has the opportunity to keep racial justice and social justice front and center. It’s not just important to legalize cannabis but also how you create a system that affirmatively builds equity and brings people in as business owners.

I do have people in my life who have been impacted by cannabis prohibition. I also have people who did not have access to the medicinal cannabis that could have helped them. But you don’t have to use cannabis yourself to understand why legalization is important.

As head of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, what do you see as your main mission?

To advance equity and to promote integrity. On the equity front, I will be looking soup to nuts, how do we do right by our communities in the establishment of the cannabis industry both on medical-use side and personal-use side and outside the cannabis industry.

We will make sure that everyone understands what the expectations are and make certain that our regulations are followed and enforced.

What problems do you foresee in getting this off the ground?

It will take time. Even though we’re starting from a medicinal market, storefronts aren’t going to switch overnight to meet recreational demand. That’s one key thing.

We’ll also continue to look for lessons in what other states have done. We won’t be afraid to be creative.

We should be really trying to address issues of access to capital and not letting someone’s past in the criminal-justice system predetermine what they can and cannot do. I want to give people meaningful opportunities to participate if they choose to do so.

Everything is on the table, from micro-permits to delivery.

What ideas will you consider from other states?

There are a lot of interesting ideas being used in other parts of the country. Residency requirements are one way to go about equity. There are many long-standing questions about set-asides. I’m not under any delusion that we will have regulations on Day 1 that everyone will be pleased with. It’s a hard, complicated thing to do and it’s all being done more or less from scratch.

We really want to get this right.

Your Twitter bio mentions you’re ‘On a quest to find the flux capacitor.’

(Laughs) That’s a reference to the “Back to the Future” movies. A flux capacitor was the technology that allowed them to travel through time.

If you ever find that technology, where — and when — would you go?

I’d bounce around between past, present, and future. I’d like to go back in time to certain points of my childhood when I was really happy. I would play rugby again. I played in college. I would also love to see my ancestors and my grandfather’s parents and how they lived their lives. Obviously, I would fast-forward to the future to see what the state of cannabis is in the state of New Jersey and other parts of the globe.

How will that future look?

I’ll let the Legislature determine what’s in the final bill, but there’s strong interest in having room for diverse businesses, of varying sizes, places where they will be located, what they’ll look like, and what will be needed to make sure the cannabis industry is strong and represents all of New Jersey.

There’s no shortage of work to do. But between myself and Jeff Brown, we’re both ready to roll up our sleeves and get to it.