Remember the push to legalize recreational cannabis?
It hasn’t gone away. The question of whether to amend the state constitution to legalize recreational cannabis will be on the Nov. 3 ballot for New Jersey voters to decide, and a political action committee has formed in favor of its passage.
But the COVID-19 pandemic forced the newly formed NJ CAN 2020 to postpone its outreach to voters, a campaign organizer said.
“It’s coming in the next couple of weeks. We’re in the process of starting digital outreach, mail, hopefully we can get up on TV,” said Axel Owen, campaign director for NJ CAN.
Gov. Phil Murphy and legislative leaders failed to get a legalization bill through the Legislature in 2019, so instead passed legislation to put the question to voters.
NJ CAN submitted an organizational report to the state Election Law Enforcement Commission in June. It is the only PAC formed to support or oppose the marijuana ballot question in New Jersey so far, said ELEC Deputy Director Joe Donohue.
Owen said NJ CAN, chaired by ACLU NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha, knew it couldn’t take the usual door-to-door approach because of the pandemic.
“For us, this is a racial justice issue,” Sinha said. “We are seeing Black folks arrested at a rate 3.5 times that of white folks.”
More than 35,000 people are arrested every year for marijuana offenses, Sinha said.
“There is going to be a variety of messages,” Owen said. “The larger discussion of social and racial justice is all interconnected … with spurring a new industry in the state. We’ve lost jobs. Every month you hear more about people losing jobs.”
Recent polls have found support for legalization among New Jersey voters. A Monmouth University poll conducted in mid-April found 61% of those polled said they would vote for the November ballot measure, and 34% would vote against.
It found support from 74% of Democrats, 64% of independents and 40% of Republicans.
While no specific PAC has formed in opposition, there are groups opposed to it that will be working to convince people to vote down the question.
One is Smart Approaches to Marijuana: Preventing Another Big Tobacco. A spokesman clarified Monday that it has no New Jersey organizer, but efforts in the state are being led by a newly formed group called Don’t Let New Jersey Go To Pot, with executive director Gregg Edwards. Edwards was not available to discuss the group’s efforts.
In general, opponents to legalizing recreational use of cannabis for adults cite the dangers of becoming dependent on the drug for about 10% of users, concerns about dangers of driving under the influence and concerns about how a large industry would market the product to young people.
Opponents also point out that, in the 10 states that have legalized recreational marijuana, arrests continue to affect minority communities more than white communities for dealing on the black market. The high cost of legal cannabis can cause many to still seek it out through illegal channels.
Since the election will be conducted mostly by mail, Owen said it also will be important to educate voters about how to fill out ballots properly.
“Our fear is someone votes for us but doesn’t sign the ballot,” he said. “We are going to talk about voting by mail so people know the process.”
NJ CAN also will educate voters about where the question is on the ballot — way at the bottom.
“We expect about 20% not to reach our question,” Owen said. “Many people just vote for the president, or for federal office. As they work their way down the ballot, they drop off.”
”We need to address this desperately, as we reckon with policing and racial justice nationally,” Sinha said. “As we are re-imagining the police and disarming the tools that allow for racial injustice, that includes marijuana prohibition.”
Legalization also will bring jobs and revenue to the state, he said, and economic justice is aligned with and intertwined with racial justice.
”This is a weird campaign season. Admittedly COVID pushed us to a later start,” Sinha said. “There was way too much going on to launch on our original timeline, but you’ll be seeing more in all parts of Jersey very soon.
Jeff Brindle, executive director of ELEC, had predicted heavy spending by independent groups in the general election, in part because the question is on the ballot and so much money is at stake.
Brindle said in a January opinion piece that $140 million had been spent on public questions about marijuana legalization in 10 other states. He said the American legal marijuana market was expected to grow from $13.6 billion in 2019 to almost $30 billion in 2025, citing New Frontier Data, a cannabis industry analytics firm.
“New Jerseyans can expect a barrage of television, radio, direct mail and digital advertising that might challenge the record $25 million spent on a 2016 ballot question asking voters to allow casino gambling outside of Atlantic City,” Brindle said. Voters rejected that proposal.
On Tuesday, ELEC reported that fundraising by PACs had fallen in the second quarter, after a record-setting first quarter of fundraising, likely due to the pandemic.
Special interest PACs had raised $13.3 million in the first quarter but for the three months ending June 30 had raised about $9 million — a fall of about 32%.
“It appears the virus crisis plagued PAC treasurers in the second quarter just as it seemed to bedevil party and legislative leaders,” said Brindle. “This is another sign that the virus crisis is having a noticeable impact on political fundraising.”