With less than 80 days until Election Day, the campaigns for and against New Jersey marijuana legalization have been eerily quiet.
What has been a wall-to-wall media blitz in other states has been barely a blip on the New Jersey political spectrum, ever since the state Legislature last year — after years of Democratic leaders trying to pass a marijuana legalization bill themselves — punted the issue to the voters, placing a proposed state constitutional amendment the ballot.
That’s by design, said Axel Owen, campaign manager for NJ CAN 2020, the main group in favor of marijuana legalization.
“We’re in the final steps of the process to organize ourselves,” Owen said. “It’s been early and, for us, it’s important to start communicating at the right time.”
Many campaigns start in earnest after Labor Day, Owen said. And in a time where New Jerseyans are more concerned about their families surviving a global pandemic, it was key to wait until they were ready to grasp the election issues.
Within the next week or two, New Jerseyans can expect to see NJ CAN 2020 — a coalition of groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, NAACP and the New Jersey Cannabusiness Association — take a much more active role, Owen said.
The group has plans for digital and mail advertising, as well as television.
Meanwhile, the group driving the push against the ballot question is almost ready to make its official debut. Don’t Let NJ Go to Pot has been officially formed and is currently putting the finishing touches on its website as it prepares to begin the campaign in earnest, said executive director Gregg Edwards.
The new group will replace New Jersey Responsible Approaches to Marijuana Policy, which lobbied against the original bill to legalize weed that never got a vote in the Legislature.
“We have to rely on community-based organizations, to convince them to give us opportunities to communicate with their members through virtual meetings and electronic communications,” said Edwards, who served as policy director to former Gov. Chris Christie. “It’s not ideal, but this is the world we live in.”
In April, a Monmouth University poll reported that 61% of New Jerseyans favored legal weed. Edwards said voter education about states where marijuana has been legalized was the way to take on that uphill battle: “If you don’t know much about Colorado, if you’ve never been to Washington state. … We can’t expect New Jerseyans to be all that familiar,” he said.
For Edwards, parents are a specific demographic — especially those with children approaching their teenage years. Youth marijuana use will be a driving point of the push against the ballot measure, Edwards said.
“Evidence from states where recreational pot has been legalized is that it makes marijuana more available to underage users,” Edwards said.
Last week, the national legal weed opposition group Smart Approaches to Marijuana highlighted research from Colorado that pointed out a 6% increase in youth marijuana use since voters legalized weed.
In response, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws — which supports legal weed — brought up a University of California study that determined “youths did not demonstrate a significant increase in marijuana use after [adult-use] legalization or implementation.”
While NJ CAN 2020′s cause might have a lead in the polls, Owen said the group isn’t taking that for granted. While legislative leaders specifically placed marijuana legalization on the 2020 ballot due to the expected higher turnout from the presidential election, the busy ballot could work against marijuana.
The last major ballot question before New Jersey voters was the 2016 proposal to allow casinos in North Jersey. Nearly 3.9 million voters cast ballots for president that year, but only 3.1 million cast ballots for the casino question.
“There are people who will go in and just vote for president and stop, or just vote for the federal positions and stop,” Owen said. “With an issue as important as cannabis legalization, it’s important to make sure they’re aware we’re on the ballot.”
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In your house
Over $140 million has been spent on public marijuana legalization questions since 2004, according to the National Institute on Money in Politics.
Groups in favor of legal weed have spent nearly four times as much as anti-legal weed campaigns, and have been much more successful. Since Colorado and Washington legalized weed in 2012, pro-marijuana campaigns have prevailed by a margin of 7-3.
In every state, groups against marijuana legalization have highlighted the funding discrepancy. In a January interview, Smart Approaches to Marijuana co-founder Dr. Kevin Sabet told the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey that he expected to be outspent by pro-marijuana legalization groups due to “skewed incentives.”
Essentially, entrepreneurs could donate to the legal weed campaign with the hopes of eventually making money in the legal cannabis industry. Donors to the anti-legal weed campaign do so only out of a sense of moral obligation.
“The people who give to us for this campaign, if it’s successful — if (the ballot question) fails, they won’t get their money back,” he said.
But the COVID-19 pandemic may very well even the playing field.
Gov. Phil Murphy on Friday announced that the 2020 election would be conducted by mail in a further attempt to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. A similar process was held for the state’s July primary and May municipal elections.
Most voters can expect to receive and send in mail-in ballots while only a few — such as those requiring special assistance or casting provisional ballots — will actually venture to polling places.
We liked what we saw” in the primary, Murphy said during a CNN interview. “We’ll tweak it and that’s where we’re headed.”
While Murphy has deemed the “hybrid” elections successful, there were issues. A Paterson councilman, councilman-elect and two workers for another campaign were arrested for an alleged voter fraud scheme. And in Morris Township, some mail-in ballots were likely lost when a mail truck caught on fire.
For NJ CAN 2020, the mail-in election presents yet another wrinkle. It was tricky enough that many voters could simply overlook the legal weed question — but what if they do try to vote for it but their ballot is disqualified?
Earlier this month, the campaign launched a website that included specific details and instruction to educate voters not just on the issue of marijuana legalization but how to actually vote.
“A lot of people are going to be voting by mail for the first time so, for us, it’s about making sure people can have their voices heard and their votes counted,” Owen said. “There are a thousand different reasons someone’s vote could be thrown out.”
Mail-in ballots can be disqualified for errors such as not signing a certificate attached to the envelope, detaching that certificate, not sealing an envelope or having a signature that doesn’t match the one on file.
During the legislative push to legalize weed, NJ-RAMP was omnipresent. Its representatives scheduled meetings with editorial boards and organized information sessions and press conferences with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.
But in the COVID-19 era, much of that has been rendered moot. Don’t Let NJ Go to Pot plans on hitting the airwaves with a media campaign, but Edwards said the group will also rely on connecting with community-based organizations.
“Employers, law enforcement, we think they’re all likely to be opposed to this,” Edwards said. ”(Marijuana legalization) is going to be a mess. Medical marijuana is already a mess for a lot of employers, and (legal weed) will only accentuate that problem.”
The COVID-19 pandemic also dramatically altered NJ CAN 2020 campaign strategy, Owen said. Instead of standard tactics — like door-knocking, town halls and in-person events with guest speakers — the decision was made early on to scale back, he said.
While there will still be remote phone banks and text messaging campaigns, the focus shifted to finding voters where they’re most likely to be: Home.
“We understood there was a possibility that this electorate was going to be different than any other year just because of what’s going on around us,” Owen said. “They’re socially distancing, isolating themselves, so we need to go where they are — which is on the internet and through Zoom, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Television.
“We have to go where people are,” he added. “And, in the time of a pandemic, people are home.”