For two years, New Jersey lawmakers had failed to mobilize enough support to pass a bill to fully legalize marijuana. Instead, they agreed in December to put the question directly to voters: “Do you approve amending the Constitution to legalize a controlled form of marijuana called ‘cannabis’?”
Then March roared in, and the world turned upside down.
The coronavirus took a firm hold in the United States and Black Lives Matter protesters filled streets from coast to coast.
More than 16,000 New Jersey residents have since died from the virus. Unemployment has soared. Ballots for November’s election, which is being conducted almost entirely by mail, have already begun to arrive at voters’ homes.
And a dominant conversation in the nation now centers on race and policing, giving a core argument among supporters of legalization new potency in a state where Black residents are more than three times as likely as white residents to be charged with marijuana possession.
“The big thing that’s changed,” said Axel Owen, campaign manager for NJ Can 2020, a coalition that supports legalization, “is people are having a discussion about the role of policing.”
A Monmouth University poll in April found that 64 percent of New Jersey voters supported legalizing the possession of marijuana for personal use; 61 percent of respondents said they intended to vote “yes” on November’s ballot question.
The use of marijuana for approved medical conditions is legal in 33 states, including New Jersey.
In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to make it legal to smoke marijuana recreationally, without a medical justification. Nine additional states and Washington, D.C., have since legalized adult use of marijuana, and New Jersey is one of four states where voters will be asked in November if they support legalizing recreational use of the drug. Arizona, Montana and South Dakota have similar ballot initiatives.
If voters approve all four, one in three Americans will live in a state or city where recreational use of marijuana is legal, even before federal legislation advances.
“We’ve seen this complete evolution in thinking,” said Steven Hawkins, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit that supports legalization. “New Jersey is one of the bluest states in the nation and South Dakota is one of the reddest — and they both have ballot initiatives in November.”
Opponents say they fear the long-term effects of the drug, its potent levels of THC — the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — and the potential glut of licensed distributors in struggling cities.
Still, they are facing strong headwinds at a time when the nation is focused on police killings of Black residents that have shined a spotlight on systemic bias. What was once an argument centered mainly on the bottom-line benefits of taxing and regulating a product widely in use has been reframed as one with equity — and the disproportionate rates of arrest in minority neighborhoods — at its heart.
If approved, New Jersey — densely populated and bordered by states that have not legalized marijuana, New York and Pennsylvania — is expected to quickly become one of the biggest new cannabis markets in the country. Gov. Philip D. Murphy, a Democrat and a proponent of legalization, argues that expanding the industry is a smart way to help the state rebound from the long-term financial devastation of the pandemic.
“You have the bridge, two tunnels,” said Joseph Casper, the manager of a medical marijuana dispensary in Montclair, N.J., about the state’s proximity to New York. “People are just going to be shooting back and forth all day.”
Curaleaf, the world’s largest cannabis company, operates a medicinal marijuana dispensary in South Jersey and was just licensed to open a second outlet in the state.
Joe Bayern, the company’s president, says Curaleaf is building a 100,000-square-foot grow facility in Winslow, N.J., with an eye toward being able to quickly pivot into the adult-use market if the ballot initiative passes.
“We need more capacity,” Mr. Bayern said. “There’s going to be a quantum leap in consumption and it takes time to prepare, to be ready for that.”
Demand for medical marijuana in New Jersey has never been higher.
Customers at the state’s nine dispensaries frequently find long lines and limited selection of the drug, which sells for about $400 to $500 an ounce, according to dispensary owners, managers and clients. There were nearly 200 applicants for 24 new dispensary licenses in the state’s latest round of bids.
A research arm of the State Legislature has estimated that taxes on sales of recreational-use marijuana could generate about $126 million a year once the market is established; groups in favor of legalization say the revenue would likely be far higher. Municipalities would also be permitted to charge cannabis businesses an additional 2 percent tax.
The industry could also create jobs, a detail supporters say is especially enticing at a time when the pandemic has led to unparalleled levels of unemployment in New Jersey.
But first, it’s up to voters to decide.
The pandemic changed the strategy of organizations on both sides of the issue, and fund-raising has been a struggle for proponents and opponents. With attention focused on the presidential contest, both sides said they feared voters would skip — or fail to see — the question, which in many counties is printed on the back of ballots.
NJ Can 2020 said it was starting a blitz of advertising on social media platforms.
“We just want to make sure that people are getting down to the ballot question,” said Scott Rudder, a former Republican assemblyman who is now president of New Jersey CannaBusiness Association.
Gregg Edwards, executive director of Don’t Let NJ Go to Pot, which is working to persuade voters to reject the constitutional amendment, said a key part of his organization’s planned campaign — face-to-face presentations to parent organizations, police unions and corporations — was curtailed by the virus.
“I expected to have my calender full talking to P.T.A.s, and those have just gone away,” said Mr. Edwards, who worked as a policy adviser to Chris Christie, the former Republican governor.
Mr. Edwards said he believed one of the strongest arguments against the referendum was the lasting nature of a vote to change the state Constitution. By enshrining legalization in the Constitution, towns that are not keen on welcoming marijuana distributors may have a difficult time keeping them out, he said.
The New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police and the New Jersey Psychiatric Association both oppose legalization, and lawmakers in Ocean County have adopted a nonbinding resolution against permitting recreational use of the drug.
Joe Vicari, chairman of the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders, said he was mainly concerned about the risks of drivers operating vehicles while under the influence of marijuana, a worry echoed by the police chiefs.
“I believe it’s a public safety issue,” said Mr. Vicari, 73, a former teacher and superintendent. “It has an impairment on your perception, your motor skills, your reflexes.”
Led by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, supporters of legalization have amassed a large coalition of backers and have portrayed the issue as a way to “advance racial justice.” Nationwide, Black people are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be charged with marijuana possession, even though they use the drug at comparable rates, according to a 2018 A.C.L.U. report.
“Even as we’ve had this public conversation about legalization, police are still making record numbers of arrests of people of color for marijuana possession and that should be unconscionable,” said Amol Sinha, executive director of the A.C.L.U.-New Jersey.
If the police have fewer reasons to make stops, supporters of legalization argue, there also will be less potential for violent confrontations.
That argument has gained new urgency in the wake of nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white police officer in Minneapolis knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Protesters’ calls for an overhaul of policing intensified in August after another Black man, Jacob Blake, was repeatedly shot in the back by a white police officer in Kenosha, Wis. And a grand jury’s decision last month not to charge white police officers for the death of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was shot in her home in Louisville, Ky., has continued to fuel protesters’ outrage.
R. Todd Edwards, the political action chairman of the New Jersey conference of the N.A.A.C.P., said he agreed that legalizing marijuana was a crucial component of reform.
But he said it was also essential for Black communities most harmed by marijuana enforcement to share in the financial benefits of legalization if the ballot initiative passes.
This will be especially important, he said, during conversations about how licenses are issued, and to whom.
“We want a seat at the table all the way through,” Mr. Edwards, the N.A.A.C.P. leader, said. “If this passes and we are not at the table, it will have been a big hoax.”
Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.