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A coalition of activists and experts is readying to roll out a campaign to legalize marijuana in New Jersey for those over 21, framed through a racial justice lens seeking to end arrests for weed use and address the damage caused by the war on drugs.
NJ CAN 2020 formed in March, just a week before the state began shutting down to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Since, the landscape of an election has changed drastically — no going door-to-door to spread the word, no rallies with motivational speakers to rouse voters. And the get-out-the-vote message has shifted to getting the ballot in the mailbox on time, as New Jersey plans to send mail-in ballots to all of its registered voters.
“As people are self-isolating, quarantining, we need to go where people are,” said Axel Owen, NJ CAN 2020′s campaign manager. “Since we can’t go to their door, that means we have to go to their phone.”
The coalition includes members of the ACLU of New Jersey, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, the Latino Action Network, the American Trade Association for Cannabis and Hemp, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, the NAACP New Jersey State Conference and the NJ CannaBusiness Association. It also has the support and funding of Weedmaps, individual donors and New Jersey advocacy group, including the ACLU.
The coalition will take a virtual-first approach to reaching voters and educating them about the ballot question seeking to legalize marijuana. They will host online forums, live broadcasts and posts on social media as well as phone banking and text alerts.
Despite a years-long battle to legalize marijuana, coalition members say the need to educate voters remains.
“There are many people in New Jersey who think that we have already legalized,” said Amol Sinha, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey and a coalition member. “I think we need to educate voters that no, it’s not done. And it’s going to be on the ballot.”
With a decade-old medical marijuana program and three years worth of calls by Gov. Phil Murphy to legalize, many people wrongly assume the Garden State has already passed legislation. But the state Senate fell short of the number of votes needed to pass a legalization bill several times over the past two years; lawmakers have also let legislation that would decriminalize anywhere from two ounces to one pound of marijuana languish.
Meanwhile, police continue to arrest nearly 100 people for possession of marijuana each day, and the illicit market thrives.
That’s the main point the coalition wants to drive home to voters. This isn’t just about making it easier to purchase marijuana for recreational use, but about stopping the thousands of annual arrests that disproportionately impact Black communities.
But NJ CAN 2020 must not only educate voters about what legal weed is and is not. They must also teach people how to vote in a mail-in election, members say.
“That’s what’s going to be very different about this campaign,” said Jessica Gonzalez, general counsel for Minorities for Medical Marijuana and a member of the coalition. “There’s not just the aspect of this is what cannabis legalization is going to bring us, but how to correctly vote for it.”
They want to make sure voters don’t select just a presidential candidate and seal their ballot, but make choices for other offices and answer the question on legalization. They also plan to educate people about properly signing and returning their completed ballots on time.
Most of the education will come from online forums, social media posts and mailers. They plan to advertise on digital platforms, and may include TV and radio ads as well.
Even if voters do pass the question as several polls predict they will, a switch won’t immediately flip. Lawmakers must still craft legislation guiding the industry. After that, it could take months or years for the state to license dispensaries to open and begin selling marijuana to residents.
Lawmakers could pass enabling legislation now, but have not yet done so. That also makes campaigning on a vague ballot question more challenging.
But the coalition, members say, is united in its goals to enact racial and social justice reforms. That’s something lawmakers should take note of, they say.
“The most overarching issue is that all parties involved in cannabis policy are on the same page in their desire to end punishment for cannabis possession and use,” said Dr. David Nathan, founder of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation and a coalition member. “And given that that’s the case, the government has a very strong interest in ensuring that this already very popular drug is well-regulated. The status quo is that it cannot be regulated. That is a shortcoming in our health care police that every New Jerseyan should take an interest and rectifying.”
Polls showing some two-thirds of voters are likely to say yes leave organizers cautiously optimistic. But they say getting residents to vote will remain key.
“It’s very encouraging. The only poll that really matters is the poll at the end of the election when they count up the votes,” said Owen. “The support is there. People of New Jersey want this, but the reality is, if they do not show up, it doesn’t matter what the poll says.”