Marijuana referendums would have small impact on 2016 presidential elections

Marijuana initiatives could be on the ballot in seven states next year — but don't expect the politics of pot to have a major impact on the presidential race.

Residents in Massachusetts, California, Missouri, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada and Ohio may soon have to decide whether they support legalizing the federally classified Schedule I drug. 

But groups on both sides of the marijuana debate say having cannabis referenda on ballots alongside presidential candidates would have only a slight impact on whether the White House goes to a Republican or a Democrat.

During a presidential election, voters turn out at a rate of 70 percent, compared to 40 percent who turn out, on average, during midterm elections. In the past, cannabis referenda have impacted elections mainly by bringing out voters interested in the issue — which would not be a factor, given the already high turnout.

But proponents of marijuana legalization say the surge in voters could help their case, particularly if a presidential candidate were to emphasize the issue.

“As the election moves forward, and those parties gel around two candidates, the question could well be asked for the first time in modern history — is it a prudent thing for a presidential campaign to reach out to this group of individuals, pander to them, coddle them?” NORML Executive Director Allen St. Pierre told AMI Newswire. “That could actually happen this time around.”

The youth vote, St. Pierre said, is overblown in terms of its ability to mobilize. In the 2014 election cycle, just 19.9 percent of 18-to 29-year-olds cast ballots, according to Tufts University Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

The issue hinges on the independent vote, St. Pierre said — and any presidential candidates who hope to garner votes because of the issue need to keep that in mind. 

“If politicians, either Republican or Democrat, find themselves in a neck-and-neck race, one could argue it would be a prudent thing to try and reach out to between 40 to 60 million marijuana consumers in the United States, many of whom are independents,” St. Pierre told AMI Newswire. “It’s the independents who really swing a presidential election.”

But marijuana supporters are not alone in organizing for 2016. 

The Take Back America Campaign in California is working to get its own initiative on Golden State ballots, stipulating that recreational use of marijuana remain illegal. The referendum would also require patients who consume marijuana for medicinal purposes to be at least 21 years of age and to agree not to drive after consumption.  

The organization's leader acknowledged that marijuana opponents may face a motivation gap. 

“Young people and Democrats are more likely to vote for marijuana than others, so yes, that is a concern,” Take Back America Campaign founder Ralph Morgan told AMI Newswire. “What we’re doing to offset that in our campaign has a lot to do with taking the facts to the people. I don’t think most people are aware of the dangers of today’s marijuana, and if they were, I don’t think they’d vote for it.”

Morgan cited research from the National Academy of Sciences that reports marijuana use under the age of 25 has a negative effect on the brain. He also said his campaign's education push aims to inform Californians about environmental concerns regarding the drought in the state.

“Marijuana plants consume an average of six gallons of water a day,” Morgan told AMI Newswire. “We have pot plantations in Northern California that have thousands of plants, and they’re diverting water out of streams — in some cases completely drying up those streams.”

The Take Back America Campaign hasn’t officially thrown its support behind any presidential candidate yet, but Morgan said he is in favor of Republican Chris Christie, who opposes any effort to make marijuana laws less punitive.

“If federal law were enforced, none of us would have this problem regarding marijuana,” Morgan said.

Kevin Sabet, director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida and co-founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said what really needs to happen with marijuana is decriminalization.

Sabet says people should not be encumbered with criminal records for smoking a joint, but making marijuana legal and commercial isn’t the answer.

“The answer to the inequities in our legal system does not fall in line with legalization. That’s not the answer,” Sabet told AMI Newswire. “Legalization would be replacing one tragedy of incarceration with another tragedy of mass availability, addiction and mass commercialization. Really it would be the creation of what, I think, is the next big tobacco industry.”

In 2015, for the first time, a presidential debate was held in a state where marijuana is legal: Colorado. But Sabet said the issue itself would not get people to the voting booth. And he did not think support for more liberal marijuana laws would help get a candidate elected.

“It’s a little overblown about marijuana getting people out to the polls, even in Colorado, and certainly in California,” Sabet told AMI Newswire. “We have not seen this impact that people who never vote come out to vote for pot — and then vote for a Democrat. It doesn’t really work that way.”

Support for marijuana legalization has increased drastically in the last forty years and is now outpacing opposition, according to Pew Research. Some 53 percent of Americans across the country feel the drug should be legal, while 44 percent think it should be illegal.

Millennials support legalization by the highest rate, at 68 percent, while 52 percent of Gen Xers and 50 percent of Baby Boomers reported supporting marijuana legalization.

“The state of Vermont has a better-than-even chance of being the very first state to legislatively legalize marijuana,” St. Pierre told AMI Newswire. “They could do it as soon as Dec. 15. It’s almost complete political cannabis capitulation. There’s nobody left standing in Vermont to argue against it. If that happens, the dam is broken for a number of other states to move in this direction, mainly in New England.”