This story is part of a series of profiles, The CannaInfluencers: The people shaping the cannabis industry in the Garden State. Written by NJ Cannabis Insider reporters, the profiles will publish the weeks leading up to the Nov. 3 election, when New Jersey voters will decide whether to legalize recreational, adult-use cannabis.
Disappointment does not not deter successful activists.
This is why Ken Wolski remains a prominent voice in the decades-long fight to legalize marijuana in New Jersey, just as voters are on the verge of amending the state constitution to allow the sale of cannabis products for adults 21 and older.
Wolski co-founded the Coalition for Medical Marijuana-New Jersey in 2003. But it would take seven years for the state Legislature to approve and for Gov. Jon Corzine to sign the law creating the state’s medical cannabis program.
The law required the state Health Department to review the program within the first two years and to consider qualifying medical conditions patients requested. But when Gov. Chris Christie’s administration wouldn’t budge, it took a successful lawsuit co-led by the coalition to force the state’s compliance.
Wolski continues to call out lawmakers for refusing to give patients the choice of growing their own medicine, a decade after the language permitting home cultivation was cut from the original bill so it could gain enough votes to pass.
“He is one of the more seasoned faces, long before (legal cannabis) really became a bandwagon to be on. There was a time he was the bandwagon,” said Jay Lassiter, a fellow activist and columnist for Insider NJ.
“You have to be even-keeled to deal with this level of disappointment,” he added. “Ken has this really calm and calming hyper-rational approach.”
State Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, sponsor of the medical marijuana and adult use legislation, credits Wolski for helping chip away at the drug’s stigma when marijuana “was looked at very skeptically…like a hippie thing.”
Lassiter would agree. “He is a straight, old white dude who is totally relatable. He’s a white guy from the Trenton suburbs.”
The 72-year-old bearded, soft-spoken nurse exudes reassurance and empathy, whether he is testifying at a public hearing, protesting outside the Statehouse, or leading a meeting of the coalition, which he started with Jim Miller, a higher-decibel activist who fought to pass a medical cannabis law so it could help his wife Cheryl, cope with multiple sclerosis.
“It is very difficult to get the truth out about medical marijuana due to the campaign of misinformation currently being waged by the federal government,” Wolski said. “An all-volunteer organization like CMMNJ, which depends for its survival on public donations, faces daunting odds. Moreover, our strongest supporters are often very ill, often impoverished by their illness, and often afraid to speak out about their use of an illegal substance.”
A Rutgers University graduate who holds a bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Wolski gravitated toward a career in public health that was shaped by his interest in social justice.
His first nursing job was with the state-run Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, where he was the only nurse doling out medication to “300 patients on 18 different wards from 4 p.m, and 8 p.m., while dealing with new admissions and emergencies.” He moved on to nursing jobs at Carrier Clinic, Mercer Medical Center, the city of Trenton and Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia before settling into a 22-year career with the state Department of Corrections.
After Gov. Christie Whitman privatized health care in correctional centers, his continued service to the state included developing a statewide telemedicine program for inmates that was so successful, he received a Governor’s Certificate of Appreciation Award in 2005. He retired from the state the following year.
He swims, plays tennis and spends time with his partner of 30 years and their cat, Soxie in their Trenton home. But Wolski does not consider himself retired from advocacy. He lectures on medical marijuana to community groups and nursing and medical professionals as part of their continuing education programs. He provides expert witness testimony in court cases and volunteers as the coalition’s executive director.
A member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws since its inception in 1970, Wolski traveled to Amsterdam in 1993 for a medical marijuana conference and met American expatriate James Burton. The former farmer from Kentucky described how he had served a year in a maximum-security prison after he was convicted of growing cannabis to treat his glaucoma.
“In 1993, I was Supervisor of Nurses at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton…so I was well aware of the kind of humiliations and degradations that inmates in maximum security prisons endured every day,” Wolski said. “It was hard time, and it was totally inappropriate for the non-violent crime he committed.”
“This was one of the worst cases of social injustice I have ever encountered,” Wolski said. “I vowed I would try to stop this injustice from happening to other patients.”
In 2002, he wrote a resolution in support of medical marijuana that the New Jersey State Nurses Association adopted.
In 2016, Christie signed into law the addition of post-traumatic stress disorder as a qualifying condition for the medical marijuana program at the urging of coalition members for two years.
Wolski helped write the petition that added chronic pain of musculoskeletal origin to the qualifying list of conditions in 2018. He is a registered patient and uses cannabis for pain associated with his osteoarthritis.
Now the coalition is working alongside with HeadCount’s Cannabis Voter Project to get out the vote for the Nov. 3 ballot referendum.
Wolski’s activism is a reason why New Jersey is finally at this critical tipping point in cannabis history, Lassiter said.
“I’m sure as the leader of the medical marijuana coalition, (Wolski’s) role will be under-appreciated, as it has always been. There are so many people in Trenton with motivations. Rarely do you encounter someone with pure motivations. That’s Ken.”
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