NJ Cannabis Insider: Every Major Movement Has Unsung Heroes. For NJCBA It Has Been This Individual

picture of two men.

Excerpted from the NJ Cannabis Insider

Scott Rudder, founder and board member of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, offers weekly industry insights for NJ Cannabis Insider subscribers. Find him on LinkedIn @ScottRudder.

Four years ago this month, the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association was formed.  New Jersey did not have a trade association dedicated to the cannabis industry at the time, and with only five operational dispensaries, that made sense back then. 

But the winds of change were in the air, so we took a leap in creating an organization dedicated to creating a responsible, transparent, and inclusive cannabis industry.

Heading into 2017, with a full year of the Christie administration ahead of us, putting together the right team with the right messaging was critical. 

Gov. Chris Christie often called cannabis tax revenue, “blood money” and spent much of 2017 bashing efforts to expand access to medical cannabis for patients. His vocal opposition to everything cannabis required a persistent and credible counter punch.

Enter Chris Donnelly and the team at Kivvit.

As a brand-new non-profit trade association, we did not have the financial resources to hire a public relations firm to help build our public profile and develop a focused messaging platform.

We had the simultaneous challenge of growing our membership, establishing a credible footprint in the industry, both in New Jersey as well as the national stage, develop messaging to advocate for increased patient access, educating elected officials, arguing to end cannabis prohibition, and a thousand other challenges.

When I got a call from Maggie Moran, the CEO of Kivvit and a leading political and public relations guru, to meet with her and Chris for lunch, not going to lie, I was a little nervous.

Maggie is a force of nature and Chris is an established political insider and communications professional.  I didn’t know what I was walking into or what they wanted.  But two minutes into the conversation, at the Brickwall Tavern in Asbury Park, I knew I met two kindred spirits.

Knowing the NJCBA was still in its infancy stage, Maggie and Chris offered to help the organization get started as a passion project.  They did not ask for compensation.  They did not ask to be recognized. All they wanted in return was to see our mission through – expand access for patients and end cannabis prohibition and the social injustices that resulted from prohibition.

From that day forward, Chris became an integral part of the team.  Our messaging and marketing, our major events, op-eds, research, testimony, just about every aspect of our efforts over the past four years, Chris was the steady and strategic voice to help guide our team through the roller coaster ride of legalization.

There were many times during this journey, when it appeared legalization was in our grasp, and then it wasn’t, and then it was, only for it to be postponed yet again.  Times when you simply want to quit.

In fact, after the NJCBA established itself, a lot of similar groups to ours popped up only to fold within a year or two. 

But that’s where having a strategic advisor and a steady voice in your ear really shows their value.  A rock who knows the world of politics as much as he knows how to deliver a critical message.  Someone who will take a call late at night and walk you off the proverbial ledge of throwing the towel in.

In fact, during a last-minute push to legalize cannabis legislatively in 2019, Chris helped organize an impressive press conference that had elected officials, business leaders, community and religious leaders, all standing side-by-side talking about the virtues of legalization.  Only to have the Senate President, two hours later, declare the bill dead and that we were moving to a referendum a year later.

Emotionally I was spent.  But the ever optimistic, thoughtful, and steady Chris Donnelly kept me centered.

Throughout the pandemic and political unrest of 2020, Chris helped steer our messaging and timing to be reflective of the moment and sensitive to the time.  It wasn’t easy to balance the excitement and promotion of a ballot question while people were losing their jobs and their freedoms.

When it came time to kick up the noise regarding legalization, Chris’ sage advice and leadership shined the brightest.

Yes, I am well aware there are countless people that made legalization happen.  Patients who marched.  Advocates who pushed and pushed.  Without them, none of this would be possible.

And yes, there are members of the NJCBA board and membership that put in countless hours helping to form policy positions, develop workshops, and networking events.  Again, without them, we wouldn’t have achieved what we achieved together.

That being said, without Chris, we would not have launched like a rocket when we did, and we wouldn’t have had the impact throughout these four years without his steady as a rock advice and guidance.

There are a lot of people who get recognized for their efforts in a project, but it’s usually the unsung hero that actually makes it happen – people who want to do the right thing and not seek the spotlight.  During the legalization process, there were plenty of people who fit that category. 

But for me, Chris Donnelly, who never once asked or wanted to be recognized, deserves a moment of the spotlight for all that he has done to make ending cannabis prohibition as reality.

To get in touch with Chris, use our contact form.