For proponents of legal recreational marijuana, Democrat Phil Murphy's victory in New Jersey's gubernatorial race is reason to celebrate.

Murphy has said he wants to legalize and tax marijuana — it's part of a plan that along with higher taxes on the wealthy he projects would bring in $1.3 billion in revenue a year. And he's got strong support in the Legislature for doing so.

All that has stood in the way of legal marijuana for the last few years is a sure-bet veto from current Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, who has derided marijuana as a gateway drug while advocating and implementing programs meant to curb New Jersey's opioid crisis.

New Jersey legalized medical marijuana in the final days of Jon S. Corzine's administration, but was slow to open the handful of dispensaries now scattered throughout the state. In the time since, all-out legalization has gained broader support in New Jersey's Democrat-dominated Legislature.

“People like (State Sen.) Nick Scutari and (Senate President) Steve Sweeney and Phil Murphy want to bring this poison, legalized, into this state under the premise that, well, it doesn’t matter because people can buy it illegally anyway,” Christie said in May.  “Then why not legalize heroin? I mean, their argument fails just on that basis. Let’s legalize cocaine. Let’s legalize angel dust. Let’s legalize all of it. What’s the difference? Let everybody choose.”

When a caller to New Jersey 101.5's "Ask the Governor" told Christie the state should tax marijuana in November of last year, he shot back: "Are you high right now?" The governor called any such income "blood money."

Even a win by Murphy's opponent, Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, could have meant some easing of New Jersey's marijuana policy. But she's noted that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is dead-set against legalized pot, and that legalization would put New Jersey into conflict with federal policy.

Scutari has said repeatedly he anticipates a marijuana legalization bill could be made law within the first 100 days of a Murphy administration. He's gone so far as to introduce legislation that would tax recreational marijuana by 7 percent to start, with increases over the next few years.

“We don’t want to make marijuana legal and have people still buying it from the street corner,” Scutari said in May. “We want to bring it out of the shadows. We want to get our neighborhoods safer. We want to make sure that the product is affordable and is not something that we’re going to cut undercut by people that are selling it illegally. The whole purpose of the program is to get rid of drug dealers.”

And the prospect of legal marijuana has caught the attention of New Jersey's business community.

In October, Meme Binko told New Jersey 101.5 she was thinking about selling the auto body repair shop she's owned in Irvington for 35 years — to open a cannabis product store with her husband and son, if it's made legal.

“I’m looking to get some knowledge and maybe look into possibly investing in the next stage of my future in the cannabis industry,” Binko said at a New Jersey CannaBusiness Association in anticipation of legalization.

The association itself — headed by former Republican Assemblyman Scott Rudder — hailed Murphy's win Tuesday night.

“Governor-Elect Murphy took a brave and compassionate position on cannabis legalization on the campaign trail,” Rudder said in a statement. He said his group would look to work with Murphy on "common sense cannabis laws that will have a positive impact on civil justice reforms as well as an opportunity to create tens of thousands of new jobs and provide a much-needed boost to our ailing economy.”

The issue has been a point of passion for the author and host of New Jersey 101.5's special video and podcast report, "Heroin Uncut: The Truth About the Crisis," Jay Lassiter. He advocates for legal marijuana as one of a number of policy changes that could address opioid abuse — saying pot helped ease him off harder drugs during his own recovery.

"First, full disclosure: I smoke pot. I do it medically, because I’m HIV-positive — and I do it because sometimes because I want to smoke pot," Lassiter says in the latest installment of the series. "I’m 45 years old. I don’t drink. I don’t like cigarettes. I haven’t had coffee in 20 years. But sometimes I like to smoke pot — and for me, there’s nothing wrong with that.

"I also used cannabis to help me detox off the hard drugs I was abusing that nearly killed me. That was mostly meth, but plenty of crack and opiates, too. That’s just my own anecdotal evidence. Researchers have already demonstrated that hospitalization rates for opiate addiction go down in states where cannabis is legal.

— With prior reporting by Michael Symons and Dan Alexander

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