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When New Jersey lawmakers decided to ask voters if marijuana should be legal for people over 21 late last year, many predicted it would spawn a huge public media campaign that would compete with the scrap for president in the Garden State.

Only a few years ago, New Jersey airwaves were filled with ads on a ballot question asking voters to allow more casinos. And similar weed votes in other states drew big-time attention and cash.

But while marijuana ballot question has drawn $1.3 million in fundraising so far, that’s not a lot of green for a referendum some thought would set records in the Garden State. And the big media blitz everyone was expecting simply hasn’t happened.

Seventeen previous legal weed questions around the country saw an average $8.3 million spent, and similar questions in three other states have seen more funding than the Garden State already.

Polls show some two-thirds of New Jersey voters want to see legal weed happen — even if ads aren’t bombarding the airwaves like they did in 2016, when a California campaign launched a pro-legalization ad featuring Jay-Z, and an anti-legal weed ad in Massachusetts went viral for playing up fears of cannabis transforming suburbia for the worse.

In January, Jeff Brindle, executive director of New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, predicted a deluge of television, radio, direct mail and digital advertising that could reach the historic $25 million spent on the casino question. That was before the coronavirus outbreak.

“Obviously this pandemic has really curtailed spending, not only the ballot question, but overall,” he said. “The polls indicating that there is significant support for the legalization of marijuana in New Jersey might have kind of discouraged spending.”

A recent poll found 75% of potential voters had not seen any ads for the question, and that some 30% of voters did not know the question was on the ballot.

Brindle also initially predicted more funding would go toward digital advertising, where the main campaign coalition in favor of legalizing has put their efforts.

Even with less funding than expected, the legal marijuana question has already pushed its way into the top 10 costliest in state history. Nearly all of the money has gone to the pro-legal marijuana effort. One group that opposes legal weed, Don’t Let NJ Go to Pot, has raised just under $10,000, according to the latest filings.

For the past three years New Jersey lawmakers, activists and lobbyists, along with Gov. Phil Murphy, have put marijuana front and center in political conversations. They have highlighted how police continue to arrest 100 people a day for marijuana possession, a disproportionate number of whom are Black. And they’ve touted the job creation and new tax revenue the industry could bring, particularly if New Jersey beats its neighbors in Pennsylvania and New York to the punch.

“I think there’s more general social acceptability in New Jersey with respect to marijuana,” said Ariel Alvarez, an associate professor of political science and law at Montclair State University. “It’s been at the forefront of New Jersey politics. The people who would otherwise throw money at this, the dispensary people, the people from California, and these folks that are in the throes of getting financial benefits, they know they’re ahead.”

That funding so far comes largely from two marijuana industry leaders and the ACLU-NJ. So far, “big weed” companies, including several that operate medical marijuana companies in the Garden State, have kept their distance from the race.

The medical cannabis companies benefit from a stunted playing field in New Jersey. The state’s medical marijuana program has ballooned in number of patients, enrolling more than 90,000. Yet only 12 companies hold licenses to operate, three of which have not yet opened their doors.

Legalization would bring some 1 million new customers to the dispensaries, but also usher in greater competition and likely a drop in prices. The longer the 12 can dominate the market, the more they stand to gain.

“Some of the pushback that we’re getting is something to the effect of how there is that reluctance to expand the market,” said Amol Sinha, executive director of the ACLU-NJ and member of NJ CAN 2020, a campaign coalition of doctors, activists and business interests in support of the question.

“I think that’s just disingenuous, altogether,” he said. “For people to say that they believe in cannabis and then not allow for the growth of cannabis or the growth of the industry is just hypocritical.”

One medical company, Delaware-based Compassionate Care Research Institute, which does business as the medical marijuana dispensary Garden State Dispensary, did drop $10,000 into the NJ CAN 2020 campaign.

But the biggest spending came from The Scotts Company, which makes gardening products like Scotts Miracle-Gro and has a marijuana product subsidiary Hawthrone Gardening Company. It poured $700,000 into the group Building Strong Communities Action Fund and gave another $100,000 to the NJ CAN 2020 campaign. The company did not respond to a request for comment about the donations.

California-based tech company Weedmaps, which has aligned itself with NJ CAN 2020, also donated $91,000. Still, the ACLU-NJ has funded the majority of NJ CAN’s spending, putting $323,446 into the race.

Ballot questions are uncommon in New Jersey, as the state Legislature must place them to voters. In many other states, residents can petition to have propositions put on the ballot.

“New Jersey voters aren’t used to this idea of referendum,” Alvarez said, noting he believed spending will increase with the aim of capturing newer voters as Nov. 3 draws closer. “I think it’s going to be targeted more on younger voters.”

While New Jersey’s infrequent questions have not drawn much funding in the past, the trend has begun to shift. Last year, a local referendum regarding short-term rental restrictions in Jersey City drew more than $5 million in spending.

With legal marijuana referendums in other states like Arizona, South Dakota and Montana, some industry insiders think pressure elsewhere may have moved spending out of New Jersey.

In South Dakota, committees seeking to pass the ballot question have raised $1 million. The state has about one-tenth the population of New Jersey.

By mid-July, groups had raised some $3.4 million in support of the ballot question in Arizona, while the opposition had $120,000. And groups supporting legalization in Montana raised nearly $7 million by the end of September, and the opposition had $70,000.

“I think a lot of people feel that this is a clear victory for the ballot initiative and therefore they may not feel the need to contribute to this campaign versus other campaigns across the country,” said Scott Ruder, president of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association. “The reality is this: It is nonetheless a campaign. There are fixed costs in running any campaign of any size.”

And New Jersey’s all mail-in election has upended traditional campaigning. Most voters will cast their ballots before Nov. 3, and campaigns have to not just advocate for a question, but remind voters to turn the ballots over to find it.

Even without a traditional election day deadline, Brindle says he thinks spending will continue to grow in the final weeks. But likely not by $20 million.

“Looking at what’s happened so far, I don’t think it’s going to anywhere come close to what originally was thought would,” he said.

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Amanda Hoover may be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @amandahoovernj.

INTERESTED IN GETTING A CANNABIS BUSINESS LICENSE?

Call New Leaf Cannabis Licensing Specialists at...

1.888.791.5323

New Leaf Cannabis Licensing Specialists is a True One Stop Shop for the Cannabis Entrepreneur.

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