They knew it was coming. COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in countless plans, but it couldn’t foil this one, at least not fully.
Ballots for the Nov. 3 election, which in keeping with the Oct. 5 mail-in voting deadline should all be in the hands of or on the way to voters by now, also puts the opportunity to give adult use cannabis the green light or a stop light in voters hands.
In what ordinarily would seem like the 11th hour, bipartisan advocacy groups on either side of the issue are navigating new waters: How can we get through to voters, who we can’t interact with in person, to answer one way or another Public Question No. 1: “Do you approve amending the Constitution to legalize a controlled form of marijuana called ‘cannabis’?”
“We’re educating voters on exactly what the ballot question means, how to properly vote, and what voting ‘yes’ will actually entail. The biggest hurdle now that we’re actually facing is getting people to turn their ballots around,” said Jessica Gonzalez, cannabis law associate at Bressler, Amery & Roth PC, outside general counsel for Minorities for Medical Marijuana, and member of new pro-cannabis political action committee NJCAN. “I get messages everyday saying ‘where is the question? I haven’t seen it.’” The public questions are on the opposite side of the ballot from the candidates.
NJCAN is a coalition of social justice, public sector, union, and for-profit organizations pushing voters to turn their ballots over in a campaign called #TurnThePage. Gov. Phil Murphy is in on it with a new commercial spread on social media.
“We launched #TurnThePage as a double entendre. Turn the page as in tun your ballot around, but also turn the page onto a new New Jersey,” explained Gonzalez.
When veteran political operative Axel Owen was tapped to run the campaign in June, he and his colleagues laid out two plans. The more optimistic one would be used if everything went back to normal.
The one that’s actually been used was tailored to a world in which COVID-19 persists. With traditional campaign actions like knocking on doors, sending canvassers to the streets and big rallies on hold until the end of the pandemic, Owen and the rest of the NJCAN political action committee pivoted to a digital, social-media heavy campaign.
“The reality is as people are isolating and self-quarantining, it’s important to get to where people are congregating, and that seemed to be on social media,” said Owen.
With a focus on Facebook Live, Zoom events, and ads on YouTube, Hulu and social platforms, they’re reaching people as best they can in an affordable way. With a target audience that’s situated in the No. 1 and No. 4 most expensive broadcast media market in the country, NJCAN is essentially precluded from television and radio ads; but the PAC has enlisted D.C.-based 76 Words to help them get out non-English language ads as well.
Opposition group Don’t Let NJ Go to Pot, led by Executive Director of the New Jersey Senate Gregg Edwards, was formed in July. According to his website, more than 40 towns from 11 counties have passed ordinances banning dispensaries ahead of the adult use legalization vote; and four counties have passed county-wide resolutions.
Don’t Let NJ Go to Pot is the successor to New Jersey Responsible Approaches to Marijuana Policy, which Edwards was not involved in. But late last year, he contacted Former Assemblywoman Mary Pat Angelini, R-District 11, with an interest in participating in the fight against the ballot question, and he realized—there was no real fight structured against it at all.
“I took the bull by the horns and it sort of took a little while to get that organized and get people comfortable with where we were going. I felt the pressure [to do outreach], but opportunities to do outreach and things like that evaporated [due to COVID-19]. Groups weren’t doing meetings and you couldn’t make contribution pitches easily. It really inhibited the whole outreach process,” he said.
So, like NJCAN, activity has been via phone, email and Zoom. The organization is funded by individual contributors because, Edwards explained, “no one is going to make money off the fact that marijuana legalization is defeated. On the other hand, there’s a lot of reasons people will make money if it passes. There are economic interests there … but there’s no economic interest in keeping the status quo.”
Looking back on the last polling from Monmouth University of legal adult use cannabis in April, 64% of respondents wanted to end cannabis prohibition.
“That’s a pretty good number,” said Monmouth University Poll Director Patrick Murray. “My sense is it’s probably going to pass. Even people who are ambivalent about the use of it are looking at the economic ramifications as states are looking to get ahead of the curve and get some tax revenue on it. That’s how a lot of voters told us they were thinking on it.
“One thing we do know is there’s always a significant undervote on ballot measures. The harder they are to find on the ballot, the more likely it is that people will skip them. And now that we have the vast majority of New Jersey voters voting by mail, even more are going to miss it because it’s on the other side of the paper,” Murray said.
An undervote of 10 to 20 percent is normal, Murray said. Are the people who skip it more or less likely to support legalization? Murray said he’s not sure. But it’s possible that, even if only half the voters who return ballots actually vote on the question, it could still pass 60 to 40.
However, the question’s placement on the ballot is cause for concern for Owen, who calls it “the worst it could probably be.”
In April, Democrats backed the referendum to legalize adult use cannabis by 74% to 24%, and independents backed it 64% to 30%. Republicans at the time opposed legalization 55% to 40%.
At the time of the cannabis legalization poll, Joe Biden held a 16-point lead over President Donald Trump among New Jersey voters polled on the national election at 54% to 38%.
“It turns out more people were for legalization than were for Trump or Biden. So you’re pulling in predominantly from the left-leaning electorate, clearly from independent, and also right-leaning if you look at [support for] legalization,” said Wilson Elser Partner Kate Tammaro.
And despite social media and news reports of ballots being dumped or otherwise not getting to their final destination, Tammaro suggests that those who would normally vote will find a way to vote, regardless of mail-in ballot issues.
“Normally I would say your more motivated voter in this particular election given the strangeness of it would be the blue voters, but the Trump supporters are very motivated as well. I presume voters who have problems with their ballots are going to get their ballots,” Tammaro said, noting that she’s seen links on social media detailing what to do if you haven’t gotten your ballot yet or have an issue with it.
Tammaro, whose firm works with clients in mature cannabis spaces out west, believes the ballot measure will likely pass. But the cannabis advocacy and business communities have been hit with reality at least once when the final vote on a March 2019 adult use legalization bill was cancelled hours before it was to hit the floor of the Legislature. It was shy by just a few votes.
For either side to win the votes in their favor, strategy is key.
It was strategic for NJCAN to wait until after Labor Day when folks would start receiving their ballots for a bigger push, explained Gonzalez; and strategic to hold back while COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement were gaining momentum and in the news every day.
New Jerseyans have watched 11 other states as they move along with or further into their own cannabis legalization programs, according to Gonzalez and Weedmaps State Manager of Government Relations Alex Lleras.
“We have the late-mover advantage of being able to peek over at other states, learn from their mistakes, and capitalize on their successes – and that’s what we need to keep in mind,” she said.
And while pushing these ads out now, and only having gotten started within the last couple of months, seems late, Lleras noted that “advocates and activists have been fighting for just cannabis laws for tens of years, not just since Gov. Murphy was elected.
“It is their years’ worth of work that will be the reason legalization comes to the Garden State,” she said.
Edwards said that he’d planned in March to spend money on a Don’t Let NJ Go to Pot mailer campaign in the weeks leading up to the election, but that ballots coming to mailboxes earlier than he expected threw a wrench in the plan.
“Someone I know got their ballot Sept. 17, so mail became an unlikely way to communicate with people, because you didn’t know [how to timeline it]” he said. Digital efforts will be ramped up in the coming weeks, he explained.
According to both organizations, their missions are based on what’s right socially, economically, and more. According to NJCAN, the state wastes $143 million each year on arresting more than 32,000 people for cannabis possession. That adds up to $1 billion every seven years, Owen notes.
“It’s stopping the 96 arrests that happen a day and expunging the records of those who are have arrested. That’s going to open up a plethora of opportunities for education, getting loans, getting housing … which is what we’re really working on to make sure social justice is one of the main pillars [in the enabling legislation],” Gonzalez noted.
According to Edwards, the discriminatory enforcement of cannabis laws wouldn’t be a problem if the possession and use of small amounts of cannabis was decriminalized.
“But what New Jersey voters really need to know on this is the reason why decriminalization has not passed in New Jersey is that the forces behind legalization will not reap any economic benefits [from decriminalization]” Edwards said. “While they run around the state bemoaning the way the law’s enforced, they’re actually stopping decriminalization from passing.”
A bill decriminalizing small amounts of cannabis passed the Assembly in June but hasn’t been acted on by the Senate. In a letter to Senate President Steve Sweeney, Sen. Ron Rice, D-District 28, informed him that Sen. Nick Scutari, D-District 22, a primary sponsor for the legalization bill that didn’t go through last year, said he wouldn’t move the bill through the Senate, which Rice suggested was due to the November ballot initiative.