The marijuana industry spent nearly $2 million in New Jersey last year to sway the hearts and minds of state legislators and the voting public.
That amount could easily rocket to $10 million this year as a ballot question that calls for legalizing the drug for recreational use goes to the electorate in November, said Jeff Brindle, executive director of the New Jersey Election Enforcement Commission.
“Looking at other states that have legalized, I think the expenditures could be upward of $10 million, maybe more. It’s hard to tell,” Brindle said. “It’s going to be one of those very controversial issues and I anticipate a lot of advertising.”
In 2019, the marijuana industry spent $1.9 million on lobbying, up 32 percent from the year before, according to state data.
All of the money spent to influence public opinion was derived from the burgeoning multi-national weed industry. An anti-marijuana group that spent $24,000 in previous years to defeat legalizing cannabis, Responsible Approaches to Marijuana Policy, appears to have dissolved.
Acreage Holdings, the cannabis producer with operations up or pending in 20 states, spent $245,000 in New Jersey last year on lobbying efforts. Acreage hired one of the Garden State’s top political consultants, Optimus Partners, to lead its efforts. Optimus is run by Philip A. Norcross, brother to U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D., Camden) and New Jersey Democratic power broker George Norcross.
Acreage last year agreed to purchase “100% of the equity interests" in Compassionate Care Foundation, one of the six original marijuana producers licensed to operate in the state.
The subsidiary, which spent $55,000 of its own money on Garden State lobbying efforts, is building out a 35,000-square-foot former orchid greenhouse in Sewell to convert it into the largest weed cultivation facility on the East Coast.
On Feb. 22, Acreage opened the first medical marijuana dispensary on Atlantic City’s famed Boardwalk. Called the Botanist by Compassionate Care, the dispensary sits at the end of South Carolina Avenue a block from the Resorts Casino Hotel.
Acreage’s lobbying expenses were twice that of the next biggest spender.
MainLine Investment Partners, of Wynnewood in the Philadelphia suburbs, doled out $120,000 to lobby New Jersey. Principals in MainLine Investment Partners include former Jefferson board chairman Billy Landman and Jeff Cook, chief financial officer for Pepsi & National Brand Beverages Ltd., which is owned by the Honickman Group.
MainLine won a permit in Pennsylvania last year to partner with Thomas Jefferson University. The permit allows it to operate up to six Ethos branded dispensaries in the Keystone State and grow and produce marijuana on the former U.S. Steel plant in Fairless Hills, Bucks County.
In New Jersey last year, the Legislature aborted an effort to pass a bill legalizing recreational marijuana for people over the age of 21. State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D., Gloucester) withdrew the legislation after it became clear that it would not have enough votes to pass.
The question will be left to the voters to decide on Nov. 3.
“The spending we’ve seen so far on lobbying, while substantial, may just be a warm-up act to this year’s star event: the referendum,” Brindle said. “The lobbying effort to legalize gambling was $25 million. So we expect a lot more to be spent.”