Q&A: NJ Cannabis Regulatory Commission Chair Dianna Houenou
Shaping the cannabis industry from the ground up
By Elyse Notarianni

See Dianna Houenou at SJ Mag’s Women’s Empowerment Series on Oct. 19 at The Mansion in Voorhees. Get tickets here.


Photo: David Michael Howarth Photography

New Jerseyans voted to legalize marijuana last November, and now Dianna Houenou is at the helm of figuring out exactly what that means. As the head of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, she’s working with lawmakers, industry professionals, state regulators and NJ citizens to create policies and guidelines to govern the state’s emerging cannabis industry.

When appointed, Gov. Phil Murphy called her, “quite simply, the right person at the right time.” She’s spent years advocating for marijuana and other causes in the state, first with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and then in Murphy’s own office as the senior policy advisor and associate counsellor.
Now that legalization is here, she’s just at the start of the long road ahead.

Q: What was it like to cast your vote to legalize marijuana for the first time?

Honestly, it took me a little while to actually fill out my ballot. As I was looking at the question, pen in hand, I was thinking about all the different people I’ve met during the campaign for legalization, all the different events I attended and spoke at and the work that had gone into the campaign, not just by me but by every advocate. Now I had the opportunity to make it clear that we should be moving away from prohibitionist policies on marijuana in favor of a legalized and regulated structure. It was really emotional for me.

Q: After so many years of advocacy, how does it feel to be leading this commission?

I honestly had not thought I would actually be working on the commission. When I was an advocate, I just wanted to make sure the right policies were cemented into the legislation. I envisioned encouraging the commission to carry out justice-oriented policies, but I never expected I would be doing the implementation. It’s been a humbling experience, and it’s one I’m very grateful for.

Q: What would you say to people who voted against legalizing marijuana?

Honestly, that’s to be expected, right? We are a diverse community of New Jerseyans, and even reasonable minds can disagree. I think it’s right that there are some people who may or may not be so sure of legalization, but I still would invite them to the table to talk about their concerns and perceptions. Given that legalization is here, there’s no turning back at this point. So now the question is: how can we actually move forward together to make sure we are maintaining public safety and public health while giving people opportunities to start a business responsibly to provide for themselves, their families and their communities?

Q: How do you start to undo decades of preconceived notions about marijuana?

For a long time on the campaign to legalize, we encountered a lot of people who were holding on to the War on Drugs mentality. The thinking was that those who use illegal substances are inherently irredeemable, but that conversation has evolved over the years. More and more people understood the facts related to who was actually getting arrested and what the impact of those arrests were for communities. Then we could talk about how to set up a regulatory structure that maintains an emphasis on public health and equity.

Q: Were people willing to listen?

As time went on, people were willing to learn more about this issue so they could make an informed decision about legalization. More often than not, I found people eventually changed their minds. It’s sometimes a difficult conversation, but it’s much easier to have a conversation about individuals, not just policy, to really demonstrate the human impact of the previous approach to marijuana.

Q: What is the human impact of marijuana legalization?

When it comes down to it, legalization is a form of racial and social justice. The laws degrading marijuana were not written to discriminate, but the enforcement of those laws was a different story. It had a disparate impact on Black, brown and Latino communities. When you look at the numbers and understand that marijuana usage rates were pretty similar across race and ethnicities, but our arrests were disproportionately made against Blacks and Latinos, there’s a clear disconnect. An arrest can lead to potential jail time, loss of a job, loss of financial aid for those in school, loss of housing – those are huge impacts. A marijuana arrest could easily put entire families in a tough spot, and those effects can accumulate to impact communities.

Q: Do you have any tips for having conversations about marijuana constructively?

First, understand what’s really at the core of the disagreement. Is it a difference in values? Is it not a difference in the desired outcome, but the means to reach that outcome? By understanding where the root of the disagreement lies, you’re better able to position yourself to have a productive conversation.

It’s also important to know when you’re engaging with someone who is not going to change their position, because then the goal is different. It’s not about getting them on your side, but rather making sure you can walk away with a better understanding of what concerns they have and how you can address them, if at all. Reasonable minds can disagree, but you’d be surprised what can be achieved even when you’re talking to someone who disagrees with you.

Q: What has your experience been as a woman of color in this leadership role?

Women of color are so underrepresented in leadership positions, and it’s certainly not been easy to get to this point. I definitely encountered some of the stereotypical comments about women of color and their ability to get stuff done, or to be effective, but I’m grateful that the Governor saw the potential in me and trusted me to guide this agency in the right direction.

Q: What advice do you have for younger people who want to make a difference?

Don’t be shy. Speak up. Speak your mind. I’ve had hard times where I had to really muster up the courage to interject my voice into conversations where I was not being given a platform to speak. It was uncomfortable, because I’m not somebody who typically would do that, but I had to tell myself that to get the work done, I needed to push, because I have knowledge and information that needs to be shared. I have to be willing to take up space. When young people, especially women, are not encouraged to do that, we have to be bold and brave. Otherwise our voices will not be heard.

Q: Where are we with the state’s legalization right now?

On August 19, the commission issued the first set of regulations for the adult-use cannabis industry, which was a huge milestone. From here, the commission will be issuing a notice of application acceptance to spell out the details for anyone who wants to operate a cannabis business.

It took a while to catch on. A lot of municipalities did opt out initially, but many expressed they were doing so because they wanted to wait until our regulations came out and make a decision for their communities then. I do hope to see more towns opt back in.

Q: How have you grown as a leader?

As we move forward with setting up the industry, I’ve realized this is going to be a constant learning process. One of the essential traits of leadership is to be willing to reflect on and evaluate past decisions and be willing to course correct. We are continuing to work with the public and local officials to monitor what’s happening on the ground, evaluate whether there are concerns or issues that need to be addressed and work together to ensure we are continuing to improve on the foundation of the cannabis industry.


See Dianna Houenou at SJ Mag’s Women’s Empowerment Series on Oct. 19 at The Mansion in Voorhees. Get tickets here.

October 2021
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