The coalition advocating for passage of a referendum to legalize marijuana in New Jersey, has tapped a top state political operative to manage their campaign.
Axel Owen, a former Democratic State Committee political director, will lead NJ CAN 2020, an alliance of organizations forging a joint campaign for a yes vote in the November general election.
The grassroots group is made up of the New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, including the ACLU of New Jersey, NAACP New Jersey State Conference, Latino Action Network, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, and Law Enforcement Action Partnership, as well as industry partners from the American Trade Association for Cannabis and Hemp, the NJ CannaBusiness Association, and Weedmaps.
“This campaign will not be politics as usual in New Jersey. We will center racial justice, help end the failed drug war, and build political power leading to a yes vote in November,” said Amol Sinha, the ACLU of New Jersey executive director. “We’re thrilled to have Axel Owen, a seasoned campaigner, manage this inclusive effort and see to its victory.”
Owen most recently served as statewide organizing director of Mike Bloomberg’s presidential campaign in New Jersey, and served as campaign manager for the re-election of Assemblymen Andrew Zwicker (D-South Brunswick) and Roy Freiman (D-Hillsborough) in 2019. He managed the 2017 campaign of State Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Long Branch), which toppled a three-term incumbent.
“Cannabis-related job growth will be a critical part of our economic recovery as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic,” said New Jersey CannaBusiness Association president Scott Rudder. “While these may be uncertain times, one thing is absolutely certain: it’s better to create a job than deny someone their freedom for cannabis possession.”
Rudder cited the need for an experienced political operative to help ensure that voters pass the ballot question.
“Having Axel take the helm as campaign manager, with his record of success and compassion for this issue, is the right move,” said Rudder.
Michael Bronstein, the president of the American Trade Association for Cannabis & Hemp, said that NJ CAN 2020 is “powered by a broad coalition of advocates, industry, social justice organizations, labor, and people of New Jersey who strongly support the legalization, taxation, and regulation of marijuana, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in support of New Jersey’s ballot initiative.
“With the hiring of Campaign Manager Axel Owen, NJ CAN 2020 is well positioned to run a successful, data-driven campaign that will unite New Jerseyans and legalize adult use marijuana,” Bronstein said.
The referendum to legalize small amounts of marijuana for personal use had a 61%-34% lead, according to a Monmouth University poll released in April.
Supporters and opponents of legal cannabis still have their work cut out for them.
Slightly less than half of the state (48%) think it’s a good idea to allow anyone over age 21 to purchase small quantities of marijuana for personal use from businesses that have been licensed by the state to sell cannabis. While 30 of New Jerseyans view the plan as a bad idea, nearly one-quarter of the state (22%) still have no opinion.
“Support for the marijuana ballot measure is widespread in part because many who have no opinion on whether legalization is a good idea figure they might as well vote for it,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said when the poll was released.
In 2019, Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration projected legal weed would generate $60 million in tax revenue between January and June of this year if passed.
Legislation to legalize marijuana for recreational use languished in Trenton and eventually died last year after Senate Democrats failed to secure 21 votes to pass it.
Instead, the legislature choose to put legalization on the ballot for 2020, with a lower tax rate than was present in last year’s legalization bill.
“I have been honored to stand with longtime proponents of racial and social justice reform and advocates for safe patient access to usher in the prospect of a growing new economy and fairer cannabis policy as part of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform,” said Bill Caruso, a partner at Archer Public Affairs and one of the state’s top advocates of legalized marijuana.. “We plan to finish that initial task this fall and continue to educate the public on the benefits of legalization. And, we need to advocate for a fair, just, and functional statutory and regulatory framework now so that the public can know exactly what they are voting for in November.”
The president of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, Richard Smith, pledged to “work tirelessly to ensure all marijuana legalization efforts include social justice provisions, such as equal access to the market along with a free, streamlined expungement process.”
“Marijuana legalization is far more than introducing a new industry in New Jersey – it is about repairing inequitable drug laws that continue to ravage Black and Brown communities,” said Smith. “The leadership of the New Jersey NAACP remains steadfast in its commitment to inform the public about all aspects of legalization and pass a successful ballot initiative.”
To pass the referendum in a potentially high-turnout presidential election year, the coalition will need support from minority communities. Some leaders, like State Sen. Ronald Rice, have fought the legalization of marijuana and has insisted the bid to pass the referendum had less to do with social justice than it did with an “elaborate hustle” to turn profits.
According to Sarah Fajardo, the ACLU of New Jersey policy director, racial disparities in marijuana-related arrests have become noticeable.
“It’s urgent for us to halt the injustices of prohibition by legalizing marijuana in a way that centers racial and social justice,” Fajardo said. “The dual crises of COVID-19 in prisons and police violence reveal exactly why the cruelty of unnecessary, racially inequitable enforcement must end now.”
According to the Monmouth poll, support is up three points from a February 2019 Monmouth Poll and up 16 points from when the same question was asked in 2014.
“When you look at where we were two years ago, and where we are now—in so many ways and for so many reasons— our progress has been remarkable, said Shaun Chapman, the Weedmaps director of government relations. “Cannabis legalization is a real and significant component of impactful criminal justice reform, social justice and economic empowerment. And it’s time is now for New Jersey.”