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Biggest contributor to N.J. marijuana vote effort is better known for killing weeds

The Big Marijuana companies appear to be missing in the effort to legalize marijuana for recreational use in New Jersey.

Illinois collected $52 million in tax revenue during the first six months of recreational marijuana sales. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Illinois collected $52 million in tax revenue during the first six months of recreational marijuana sales. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/TNS)Read moreZbigniew Bzdak / MCT

Who’s funding the effort to legalize cannabis for recreational use in New Jersey?

It’s not the Big Marijuana companies.

The largest contributor to the Garden State’s legalization drive is a lawn care company: Scotts Miracle-Gro, a firm best-known for grass seed, turf builder, and eradicating weeds.

The second largest backer is the American Civil Liberties Union of N.J.

Scotts has ponied up more than $800,000 so far to promote the ballot measure that would approve a constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana for adult use, according to a report issued Wednesday by the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (NJ ELEC), which tracks election spending.

Scotts contributed $700,000 to the pro-marijuana political action committee, Building Strong Communities Action Fund, according to NJ ELEC. The company also gave an additional $100,000 to NJ Can 2020, a group promoting legalization as a way to address social and racial injustice. NJ Can 2020 is closely affiliated with the ACLU.

The ACLU-NJ itself donated about $323,500 to NJ Can 2020.

The only organized group opposed to the measure, Don"t Let NJ Go to Pot, has raised less than $10,000.

Total spending in New Jersey — pro and con — amounts to a fraction of other states’, totaling a mere $1.3 million, so far, said Jeff Brindle, executive director of NJ ELEC.

“I expected a lot more,” Brindle said. “I think the fact that it’s polling so strongly in favor of it is a factor, but the COVID-19 pandemic has really put a damper on the fund-raising and spending, too.”

Advocates spent $7 million to promote a successful ballot measure in Michigan in 2018.

In addition to New Jersey, voters in Arizona, South Dakota and Montana are voting whether to legalize.

A “yes” vote in New Jersey would create a constitutional amendment to legalize the possession and use of marijuana for adults who are 21 and over. In a recent poll, Fairleigh Dickinson University found that likely voters would approve the measure by a ratio of 2-1.

If approved, the Legislature and a new Cannabis Commission would be tasked with writing regulations to govern legal marijuana industry. So far, 11 states have legalized it for recreational use. A separate bill pending in the Legislature would expunge the criminal records of those convicted of possessing a small amount of marijuana.

Why Scotts?

Scotts subsidiary, Hawthorne Gardening, manufactures equipment for cannabis growers and appears to be betting on an “urban gardening” trend.

Marijuana advocates in New Jersey have actively lobbied legislators as part of any drafting process to allow residents the ability to grow their own marijuana at home.

Scotts could be a major beneficiary if tens of thousands of consumers plant their own marijuana. Its subsidiary Hawthorne produces indoor hydroponic gardening equipment, lighting, potting soils, and fertilizers expressly for cannabis growers.

Scotts did not immediately return requests for comment.

The stock price of Scotts Miracle Gro (SMG) has nearly tripled during the last two years and has been immune from the economic downturn triggered by the pandemic. In December 2018 SMG was trading at about $61. Company shares closed Wednesday at $166.42, up +0.67%, in New York Stock Exchange trading.

Where is Big Marijuana?

Strangely missing from the list of contributors are the nation’s Big Marijuana companies, also known as multistate operators (MSOs), which stand to reap the lion’s share of the profits if voters approve the ballot measure.

The ACLU-NJ isn’t happy about the lack of support.

“We won’t financially benefit from legalization,” said Amol Sinha the executive director of the ACLU-NJ, which is backing the measure as a way of reducing encounters with police.

“So where are the MSOs? I don’t know what’s up with that,” Sinha said. "From my perspective it’s a miscalculation on their part. It’s surprising that the MSOs are OK with allowing what are essentially grass roots and nonprofit dollars to get the job done, and they’ll be the ones to benefit.”