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NJ CAN 2020: Leading the Way to Adult-Use Cannabis Legalization

NJ CAN 2020 is the campaign leading the effort to pass the cannabis legalization referendum in three short weeks.

Axel Owen is the Campaign Manager for NJ CAN 2020. He was previously the Executive Director of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee (NJDSC).

“New Jersey needs to start a new chapter and turn the page on this war on cannabis,” Owen said.

COVID makes the task of NJ CAN 2020 to calculate the numbers of voters who will turn out difficult. New Jersey will have a “hybrid election” where 5.7 million will get a mail-in ballot, but people can cast provisional ballots at their polling places.

Mail-in ballots have already been sent out, and people are voting. Owen said the State had to send them all out by Oct. 6. The cannabis question is on the backside of the ballot most people will receive.

Owen said voting by mail is easy, simple, and trackable. You can track your ballot. If someone doesn’t seal the back of an envelope or forgets to sign it, it puts their votes in question.

Voting in person will be counted as provisional voting. These are counted seven days after the election.

Cannabis polls well across the political spectrum. Owen said 76 percent of Democrats, 67 percent independents, and 51 percent of Republicans in New Jersey want to see NJ CAN 2020 win. In 2012, the legalization referendum in Colorado received more votes than Obama.

NJ CAN 2020 is a wide coalition led by the ACLU that includes the NAACP, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, the Latino Action Network (which I represent, full disclosure), the UFCW union the NJ Canna Business Association, NORML, progressives, and Acreage Holdings, among others.

NJ CAN 2020 Winning

“It’s been a very different election than anybody would have guessed going into this year,” Owen said.

Regarding COVID, “It’s caused our campaign to really look at how we can campaign differently,” he said. “We can’t have a 1000 people hypothetically show up to Newark City Hall to promote the cannabis question on the ballot.”

Thus, it’s especially important to talk to friends and neighbors to persuade them to vote for cannabis on the back of the ballot.

Owen said he misses the field aspect of the campaign prevented by COVID whereby people visit neighborhoods persuading others to vote.

Ideally, NJ CAN 2020 wants a mandate whereby the election is won in a landslide, so it’s clear that the agenda campaigned on is implemented fully.

While the opposition led by Don’t Let NJ Go to Pot has not been very active, “We cannot take that for granted. We have to assume they’re organized, and they’re ready,” Owen said.

“It’s our race to lose,” Owen said.

Disproving the Opposition

Owen said that instead of busting people whose car smells like weed, cops could be working to solve serious crimes of rape and murder.

Just because a regulated market is put in place doesn’t mean you will see a spike in usage. One of the main arguments against legalization is that it will be marketed to children. However, teenage usage rates have fallen as state legalization has occurred. Anyone marketing towards a child is wasting their money. They check IDs twice in Massachusetts before you can buy it.

“It’s worked in other states. It can work here,” Owen said.

“To say this is a gateway drug is a fallacy. The reality is that’s not the case,” Owen said.

Cannabis is used for opioid treatment is far better than methadone, which often fails, and people relapse. See Trainspotting when he hallucinates during withdrawal.

“Just because we legalize doesn’t mean there’s going to be dispensaries on every corner,” Owen said.

Indeed, it will be far from it.

Economic Concerns

Owen said NJ CAN 2020 expects legalization would generate $300 million a year in tax revenue. The experts who calculated that say it is a conservative estimate because it is difficult to calculate ancillary services, including lawyers, accountants, and other cannabis professionals. 

“That reinvestment and revitalization of New Jersey is advantageous to everybody,” Owen said.

“There are abandoned buildings in Trenton and Paterson… that could easily be retrofitted to agriculture …or a dispensary,” Owen said.

“We always talk about “Jersey Fresh.” Why can’t cannabis be part of that?” Owen asked, referring to the efforts to tout locally grown fruits vegetables. Like Jersey Corn and Jersey Tomatoes.”

A Just Implementation

The arrests will likely continue until a minute before implementation goes into effect.

NJCAN 2020 is seeking to create a just industry once it passes that includes small businesses and ancillaries.

New Jersey is a cash-strapped state where agreeing on the annual budget has become a great fight to the point of a government shutdown every year since 2017. It only shut down in 2017. The budget issue has only been exacerbated because of COVID.

It is important to note people cannot buy legally nor smoke openly once it passes.

“We’re at stage two of a five to seven stage process. And if we can’t get stage two done, everything else after this doesn’t matter,” Owen said.

After failing twice last year, the advocates of NJ CAN 2020 will need all the help they can get to pass the implementation provisions they want.

(This is based on a podcast that was recorded a few weeks ago.)

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