A coalition of civil liberties and antidiscrimination groups has joined with prosecutors, police, medical professionals, and political activists to launch a campaign to make New Jersey the next state in the nation to legalize marijuana.

Under the name New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, the coalition includes the state chapters of the ACLU and the NAACP; Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, and the president of the state Municipal Prosecutors Association, which last year voted in favor of legalization for adults.

"This is a hearts-and-minds campaign," Udi Ofer, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said after the kickoff Wednesday. "We need to overcome the fiction that many people have been told for many years about marijuana and need to help people understand the benefits of legalizing, taxing, and regulating it." He said the coalition would begin hosting lectures and workshops at various venues throughout the state to "win the public debate" over the issue.

Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, D.C. have all enacted laws in the last few years to allow recreational use of the drug, and other state legislatures are considering doing the same. New Jersey Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D., Union) introduced a bill a year ago, but it has not yet been released for debate on the floor and a vote. Scutari, a prosecutor in Linden, said in an interview Wednesday that he had "good reason to expect" the bill to be aired in the spring and was hopeful Gov. Christie would be convinced to sign it despite threatening to veto it last year.

"I'm not in a huge hurry to get it to the governor's desk," Scutari said. "As a legislator I'm not here to make a point but to get things done. In the next 21/2 years I'm hoping for a groundswell of support so that it will pass."

Twenty-three states, including New Jersey, permit marijuana to be used for medical reasons. Pennsylvania is not among them, but Philadelphia passed a law recently that decriminalizes the possession of small quantities of the drug, effectively reducing the penalty to a fine.

Jon-Henry Barr, president of the New Jersey Municipal Prosecutors Association, said decriminalization was a "softer, kinder, gentler approach" to the use of marijuana but can still lead to arrests and convictions. "It's better than the status quo, but it's not the answer," he said.

Barr said the majority of marijuana arrests are for small quantities and that these don't make society safer as a whole and are a waste of taxpayers' money. "From everything I know as a prosecutor and have experienced as a volunteer EMT, marijuana is far less dangerous than hard liquor," said Barr, a prosecutor in Clark, Union County.

Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a national organization that opposes legalization, says that if marijuana were legal, more minors would use the drug and this could lead to an increase in mental health and public health problems. The group favors more regulation to stop the use of marijuana.

The ACLU says the prohibition of marijuana does not work and has wasted taxpayers' money. New Jersey police arrest more than 21,000 people a year for marijuana possession and spend an estimated $127 million a year enforcing marijuana laws, the ACLU says.

Decriminalization laws allow the black market to control the sale of marijuana, while legalization and regulation would replace this illegal sale of marijuana, Ofer said. With legalization, adults could purchase marijuana from stores and use it in the privacy of their homes. Sales would not be made to minors, he said.

Legalization would also correct the injustice committed against African Americans by the disproportionate enforcement of marijuana laws, according to Richard Smith, president of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference.

"This failed system has devastated our community," he said. "African Americans are three times more likely to be arrested than our white counterparts, though usage levels are about the same." The arrests affect African Americans' ability to obtain jobs, student loans, and housing, among other issues, he said.

Smith said taxing and regulating marijuana had the potential to generate $100 million in revenue for the state. "Think what can be done with that money - it could be used for rebuilding our cities, for education, creating jobs," he said.

Though Christie has stated several times that he would veto any legalization bill that made it to his desk, Smith said the governor would not be able to stop the campaign.

"This is bigger than Gov. Christie, and even Gov. Christie says the war on drugs has failed. . . . I think he would be open to discussion about it," Smith said.

A Gallup poll taken in October showed 51 percent of Americans favored legalization, down from 58 percent the previous year. Other polls conducted last year in New Jersey show the populace was evenly divided or slightly in favor of legalization.

When visiting Denver, Christie told reporters last year that he thinks "legalizing marijuana is the wrong thing to do from a societal perspective, from a governmental perspective." He said he worries that legalization could lead to more people "walking around high."

The coalition says it plans to educate the public on the benefits of legalization.

Ofer said the coalition was put together over the last 10 months and had met with activists who played a role in legalizing pot in other states.

"We've been talking to individuals involved in those efforts to learn what works and what can be done better," he said. ". . . We want to bring to New Jersey the next generation of marijuana laws."