Shortly after winning the 2017 New Jersey governor race, Gov. Phil Murphy promised to sign a bill legalizing cannabis within about 100 days of his inauguration. Gov. Murphy finally got around to signing a weed bill February 2021, over four years after his pledge to voters.
Anticipating the green rush, 16-year US Navy and Marine veteran Mario Ramos came to NJ hoping to plant the seeds for a legal weed business. “(Gov.) Murphy was screaming out that it was gonna be legal in like 90 days,” remembers Ramos on a November 2021 call with Leafly. “I was working for High Times Magazine at the time. I was doing event coordination, [and] I would take pictures of new grow rooms.”
While visiting a growing facility to report a story and scout potential real estate for his own company, Mario became part of a local investigation. “I guess they were already being watched,” he said.
Mario was at the supervised facility a second time when authorities raided it. He was one of eight individuals who were arrested after leaving the building. Police accused him of being the mastermind of the whole operation, using his California cannabis license and association with High Times as justification.
Mario was charged for the facility’s plants and faced a life sentence at one point. But his case was far more than ‘wrong place, wrong time.’
A trophy for law enforcement
Mario was the only individual of those apprehended by police that night who faced serious time. “I learned the hard way that that county prosecutes Black and brown men, (up to) 22 times more than any other county in Jersey,” he said of Morris County, where he was arrested.
He says the numbers are no exaggeration: “I was inside. So I saw it for myself.” NORML reports that African Americans are four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than white Americans nationwide.
“The first sentence that they gave me, they tried to say life in jail. Then, they lowered it. They lowered it to 25. Then from 25 to 15. The lawyers were fighting. A lot of people, like Last Prisoner Project came to the rescue.”Mario Ramos
Mario survived the drug war as a young man in 1980s New York City by submerging himself in hip hop’s various creative elements. Graffiti and breakdancing crews protected him from the vicious drug wars that were taking over many cities at the time. “I’ve been in over 50 galleries,” he says of his art career. “I’ve been fortunate enough to paint with the top graffiti artists.”
Still, the violence, poverty, and social injustices of the Drug War weighed on him and his fellow survivors then, and now. “I believe (weed) saved my life,” he said. “Because there was a lot of other drugs that were around (in that era).”
He noticed that many fellow service members were using cannabis to medicate long before they enlisted. “I had PTSD before I joined the military,” Ramos says.
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He says fellow vets often bond over how much they miss mary jane, while on and off duty. “You hear it a lot,” he also recalls of the weed war stories from military buddies. “I’m gonna go back and smoke. When I get back home, I can’t wait to do it… It helps a lot of people. Like I said, I always felt like it was a medicine to me.”
The Garden State’s lingering weed problem
Mario moved to New Jersey as soon as medical and recreational weed appeared on the legal horizon. He’d already been running a weed company called I Bud since 2011. But how did the New York City native find himself in a suburban New Jersey jail facing decades over a plant that was almost legal?
Morristown, in Morris County, is notorious for unjust policing. In 2020, the lone Black officer in Hannover left the department over racist harassment. Though cannabis legislation passed with flying colors in statewide elections, many local municipalities are banning legal cannabis businesses from setting up shop in their towns, with a “not in my backyard” motto.
As a whole, the state is known for being economically and racially diverse. But most communities and schools are heavily segregated. Mario learned these dynamics the hard way, via the wrath of Morris County’s unjust marijuana enforcement.
“Because I was in High Times Magazine, that county felt like they found a trophy. I had a California license on me, (so) they said I was a flight risk… You just don’t believe it. I’m like, I’m thinking every day, they’re just gonna let me go. Like, oh, they saw, they made a mistake.”
After being booked, the true weight of his charges hit him. “I was the only one in there for cannabis. Everybody [inside] couldn’t believe that I was in there for weed.” A number of organizations and advocates stepped in to get him released, but he still can’t be free of his legal baggage without Gov. Murphy’s word.
Now that he’s out with limited freedom, Mario is fighting for those who are still stuck behind enemy lines. “There’s 40,000 people still in jail for cannabis. And you know what, this could happen to anyone,” he warns.
Awaiting action from the Governor
Earlier this month, Last Prisoner Project sent a letter to New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy demanding clemency for residents like Mario. In the letter, NJ advocates and influencers like rapper Redman said it is time for immediate action on behalf of those who remain entangled in the state’s penal system.
“I always had my weed and I learned how to grow real early,” Mario remembers. “I fell in love with the High Times Magazine. They taught you how to do it. And I was lucky enough to, you know, end up working with them and everything. And so, yeah, it was like a big journey there.”
It was all snatched away overnight, and he continues to pay the cost. “There’s people making millions of dollars right now. on cannabis,” Mario laments. Some state supervisors can’t believe his predicament, insisting a judge should be able to intervene. “But the prosecutor doesn’t see it that way,” he says sadly. “It’s like another notch on their belt.”
The most fortunate part about Mario’s situation is that his support system has been strong throughout the ordeal.
“My family always knew what I was doing,” he says. “They knew that I worked for High Times and everything. So when it happened, they were like, ‘Whoa, what happened?’ They’re in shock. But I was so happy that they already knew about it.”
Being a veteran helped his cause in court, but two weed possession tickets in California and Florida in 2010 and 2011 hurt Mario’s case.
“I’m still on (supervision) right now for like 18 months,” he said in November. “They call it jail without walls, (but) I’m happy to be on this program and not behind bars, you know?”
Mario’s vision for a greener future
Though Mario’s entry point into weed was growing, he wants to start his legal empire with a dispensary. “I’m gonna open up my own dispensary,” he told Leafly. “They’re giving me the license. They’re saying because of everything that happened to me, I’m one of the first people that they could give the license to. The license comes with a smoking lounge and you are able to deliver.” He plans to be a staple in Jersey City, NJ.
“When I first got arrested, my first words to God was, ‘what’s going on here?’” Now, he knows the answer: “I was placed there (for a reason).”
And he intends to share the wealth with fellow pioneers of the East Coast legacy market : “I’m gonna pick the best growers, pick the best product for them. Cause I’m part of it. And I wanna bring that to the people so they could say, Hey, this is mine.”
President Biden could accelerate the dreams of Mario and many others by overstepping all Governors and granting clemency nationwide. The Weldon Group and a group of influencers already called on the President to pay up on his campaign promise to address the stick-icky issue of federal prohibition.
And the President and fellow Democrat Gov. Murphy are just two of the many left leaders who will have to answer to green voters sooner or later. And while we want to have faith that they will deliver someday, we won’t be holding our breath on that Blue Dream for more than a few seconds at a time.