Efforts to legalize marijuana in New Jersey are in the air.
Single-engine prop planes — hired by two separate organizations — dragged pro-weed banners through the skies Saturday over the South Jersey beaches. The banners urged state residents to vote yes Nov. 3 on a ballot measure to legalize recreational cannabis use.
Polling shows that roughly three out of five Jersey voters support the measure, which would allow marijuana sales to all adults 21 and over.
But advocates aren’t taking anything for granted. They fear that most people might miss the question on the ballot if they don’t know it’s there.
“I think the message has only reached the echo chamber, and that’s why I’m flying the banner planes,” said Ellie Siegel, an attorney and cannabis industry consultant who is spending $2,500 to spread the news for 3.5 hours. “It’s such a straightforward way to reach a mass audience.”
Siegel wasn’t the only one to go airborne with marijuana messaging during the holiday weekend.
Chris Visco went high, too. The president of TerraVida Holistic Centers, a chain of three medical cannabis dispensaries in the Philadelphia suburbs, also hired a plane to fly the three-hour route between Cape May and Long Beach Island.
“We need legalization now,” said Visco, who in a previous life ran numerous political campaigns. “We need to expunge criminal records and get Black men out of prison. This is a humanitarian crisis.”
Visco has an additional motive for encouraging legalization in New Jersey. She is staking out territory in the Garden State for another cannabis venture. She has real estate on the Atlantic City Boardwalk that she’d like to fill with a TerraVida medical marijuana dispensary, and has an application pending with the state to operate there.
“The $2,500 cost for the banner is a minor investment, a drop in the bucket, if it helps New Jersey voters decide whether to legalize it,” she said. Visco also has financed a series of four billboards in Pennsylvania more generally urging voters to get to the polls on Election Day.
Anti-legalization groups believe the planes won’t have much of an impact.
“But it shows that certain people stand to earn a lot of money if marijuana is legalized in New Jersey,” said Kevin Sabet of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, one of the nation’s most vocal cannabis opponents. “It will put marijuana into the state constitution, similar to Colorado, and will give the pot industry a free pass.
“There’s a reason why the New Jersey Legislature has rejected pot legalization: It’s dangerous,” Sabet continued. “It’s not Woodstock-era weed they’ll be selling. It can be up to 99% potent, and there’s a lot of concern about car crashes it could trigger. I hope that voters do their homework.”
The weekend flyovers are only the beginning of an effort to raise awareness for the ballot measure. A group affiliated with the ACLU of New Jersey is set to launch “a fully comprehensive outreach campaign.”
“After Labor Day is when the campaign season really begins,” said Axel Owens, a veteran political operative who is leading NJ CAN 2020, an alliance of marijuana businesses and nonprofits that includes the ACLU-NJ, to make sure the measure passes with a resounding majority.
Siegel’s banner included the NJ CAN 2020 logo.
“The million-dollar question is, ’Do the voters know the question is on the ballot?’” Owens said. “We’re not so sure.”
“We’re worried about the 30% of people who will cast votes only for president and other top federal offices,” he said. “We expect those 30% not to even get to our question. So we need to make certain the voters know it’s there. If we don’t get legalization done this go-around, you’re waiting until 2024 for another chance.”
The coronavirus pandemic has forced all campaigns to overhaul their strategies and adopt novel approaches, he said.
“We’d be having volunteers knock on doors and be holding large-scale events, but we can’t do that because of COVID and health concerns,” Owens said.
“We need to reach people where they are,” he said. “People right now are focused on their phones, the internet, and the beach. So that’s where we are, and that’s where we’ll be.”