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 in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 3 election, when New Jersey voters will decide whether to legalize recreational, adult-use cannabis.
An avid hiker, Mike McQueeny said his favorite part of his hobby is finding something unexpected.
“You go in, you have a general sense of what the slash marks are on the trail and the like and every now and again you go off the trail and you find something you never knew you were going to see,” McQueeny said. “That’s what I like the most, both the ability to find yourself in the wilderness and at the same time finding something and discovering things.”
That’s how the cannabis lawyer and married father of two daughters got involved in the effort to legalize marijuana. He found something unexpected more than a decade ago.
That’s when his aunt and godmother, Nora Amoroso, came down with ovarian cancer. She underwent treatment, including taking opioids to help her through the pain, but didn’t like how the drugs made her feel.
“Maybe they were helping her cope with everything going on with treating cancer but they weren’t allowing her to be herself, not allowing her to kind of have all those things that she wanted, being present for your family, being well enough to enjoy the moment,” McQueeny said.
Instead, she sought out marijuana with the help of friends and neighbors, and discovered that marijuana both eased her symptoms and let her feel normal until she passed away in 2009.
“It really turned things for me. How can it be this bad if it’s doing such good?” McQueeny said.
“Everyone understood this wasn’t a cure for her cancer but was a tool that helped her live her best life as long as she could. My lasting memory is how much longer we had with my Aunt Nora. Cannabis was a tool that helped all of us kind of get more of our aunt. That really stuck with me.”
McQueeny, 34, of Westfield, recently joined the law firm of Foley Hoag LLP, and will concentrate on representing clients in New Jersey, which after its Nov. 3 referendum on legalizing marijuana for recreational use could lead to an explosion of new businesses seeking to obtain permits to sell cannabis. He came from Genova Burns LLC, where he co-chaired its cannabis practice group and had worked since entering private practice.
He also teaches cannabis law at New York Law School.
McQueeny said Foley Hoag reached out to him over the summer, and he jumped at the opportunity to join an international law firm with an extensive cannabis practice.
“They work with companies both in the United States and Canada with respect to cannabis-related issues,” he said. “They’re experts in all of these different fields. They’ve done some of the most complex transactions and acquisitions in the cannabis space.”
In addition, the cannabis field allows him to use his legal skills in a meaningful way to help people, something he wanted to do ever when he started to practice law, McQueeny said.
“My career spans contemporaneously the New Jersey medical marijuana program,” McQueeny said. “This lesson of what I learned from my Aunt Nora stayed with me. I saw how New Jersey was evolving, which is to say New Jersey was evolving slowly.”
Remembering his aunt, he focused on marijuana, sending queries to states about their cannabis programs and building up a library.
“When I get interested in something, I get fanatical about it,” he said. “I wanted to know everything I could possibly know.”
That helped him answer questions from clients intrigued by the new industry that was expanding in western states that had recently legalized cannabis. So he told his firm that he could be a resource in this growing area.
With the election of Gov. Phil Murphy, who was committed to expanding legal marijuana in the state, there was more of a demand for such services, as well as applying for licenses in the state.
“That only further cemented my love for being a practitioner in this industry,” McQueeny said. “It’s really pushing a broader policy objective as advanced by the state, which is good corporate citizens, which is diversity and inclusion.”
One other issue that has shaped McQueeny’s attitude toward marijuana: The opioid epidemic. Opioids, not marijuana, led to the use of harder drugs like heroin.
“This concept of the gateway drug, we don’t believe because we’ve seen it firsthand go the other way,” McQueeny said. “I’ve had so many friends who got hooked on opioids and spiraled down to heroin and the like.
“If you have a pain-related issue, the pharmaceutical drug, the prescription drug that you get from your doctor is actually scarier than the medical marijuana card,” he said. “The medical marijuana card is actually a safety net from going down that path. That correlation between cannabis and other bad things, that chain was broken soundly by virtue of the things we saw.”
In addition, the person selling legal marijuana isn’t going to sell illegal heroin, McQueeny said.
“The gateway ends when you have a regulated cannabis market,” he said. “When I go into a cannabis dispensary, there’s not a drug dealer on the other side of the table who has an incentive to try to sell me cocaine, heroin. They can’t even sell you alcohol.”
As he expands his role in the cannabis sector, McQueeny said he never forgets his late aunt.
“I started my career with this whole goal that, look, if my Aunt Nora was around in this day and age, I want her to have that option to be able go into a store and get whatever she needs, to learn what the best treatments are,” McQueeny said.
“Fast forward now to when I get to actively work with clients about really how they’re going to go about treating and caring for people that are just as similar to my family. That to me has been the most meaningful and moving thing.”
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