Could pot be a game changer in 2016?

Could pot be a game changer in 2016?

Several battleground states are planning ballot measures that could force presidential contenders to take firm stances on marijuana legalization.

Efforts to revive marijuana policy reform for next year’s elections have begun in a half-dozen states, including Nevada, Florida, Arizona and California. All of these states will be important in the presidential primaries and/or the general election.


The 2016 elections will be the first since Colorado and Washington instituted regulatory regimes for selling marijuana, which have resulted in tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue.

“It could have major, major impacts. Point No. 1 is, marijuana definitely increases [voter] participation of young people,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic consultant and pollster. “The other nice thing about marijuana is that there’s no backlash. It doesn’t motivate [opponents] to vote — so it’s a unilaterally net positive effect.”

In Colorado’s 2012 elections, Lake found, voters were less concerned with the specifics surrounding pot policies and more interested with how tax dollars would be spent. Suburban mothers, typically a more conservative demographic, were won over by pot measures that promised $40 million per year would go toward schools in the state.

States are pursuing a variety of measures on pot. California would legalize recreational use. Nevada would legalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for people over age 21.

The main players leading the pot charge are the Marijuana Policy Project, the Drug Policy Alliance and the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform, which includes the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Early primary states are already on a path to a more liberalized approach to weed: Medical marijuana is legal in Iowa, and the New Hampshire legislature is working on legislation that would decriminalize the drug, paving the way for full-on legislation by 2017.

Many Democrats and Republicans on the national stage have adopted a cautious tone as public opinion has shifted rapidly on cannabis reform. 

No major potential presidential candidate has come out in support of full-on marijuana legalization. Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulTim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls Sherrod Brown calls Rand Paul 'kind of a lunatic' for not wearing mask Overnight Health Care: WHO-backed Covax gets a boost from Moderna MORE (R-Ky.) this month introduced bipartisan legislation to legalize medical marijuana on the federal level for states that have already done so.

Many other possible contenders, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzFormer CEO Glenn Youngkin wins Virginia GOP gubernatorial convention The Memo: Outrage rises among liberals over Israel Cheney drama exposes GOP's Trump rifts MORE (R-Texas) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioDemocrats cool on Crist's latest bid for Florida governor Tim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  MORE (R-Fla.), recently told conservative audiences that it should be left up to the states. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonAmerica departs Afghanistan as China arrives Young, diverse voters fueled Biden victory over Trump McConnell: Taliban could take over Afghanistan by 'the end of the year' MORE expressed similar views, saying more testing is needed to determine the drug’s medical benefits.

“We have at least two states that are experimenting with that right now,” she said last year, referring to Washington state and Colorado. “I want to wait and see what the evidence is.”

And that’s the type of language that most Americans want to hear, according to polling by Third Way, a centrist think tank.

“People’s opinions are really fluid on this issue. It’s a lot more complex than the polls show,” said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, Third Way’s director of social policy and politics.

Progress on marijuana legalization “will mean less historical ignorance of the war on drugs, less big pharma, less big alcohol, more empathy and justice for the sick, the veteran, the prisoner and my impoverished native brothers and sisters,” said Tom Rodgers, a Native American strategist and voting rights advocate.

Still, political consultants on both sides of the aisle are not completely convinced that the marijuana vote would push many to the polls.

“I don’t want to be a buzzkill, but I just don’t see it happening in the next year or so,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist. “I haven’t seen a demand other than from young people.”

Support for marijuana legalization does cut along generational lines. A Pew Research poll showed that 63 percent of millennial Republicans and 77 percent of millennial Democrats would like to have weed made legal. 

The previous generation — born between 1965 and 1980 — was less in favor: 47 percent of Republicans and 61 percent of Democrats supported legalization. Baby boomers had the greatest amount of disagreement, with only 38 percent of Republicans but as much as 66 percent of Democrats saying that marijuana should be legal.

“I can tell that [Republican candidates and politicians] are much more careful about this whole deal. They don’t want to look out of touch; they don’t want to look like they’re behind the times,” said a Republican strategist, who asked for anonymity. “But if they get ahead of their ski tips on this — and let’s say Colorado completely implodes on how they handle it over time — it’s hard to justify supporting [marijuana reform], based on that.”

Dick Wadhams, a Republican consultant in Colorado, says pot being on the ballot in 2012 helped the Obama camp. He notes that one of the largest, most Republican and evangelical counties in Colorado helped to carry marijuana legalization.

While pushing reforms could be “a smart political strategy, the failure to fulfill that promise in Colorado will also be used as an argument against it in other states,” Wadhams added, referring to the constitutional amendment that allocated $40 million in marijuana tax revenue to Colorado schools.

The state estimates that the school fund has only netted about $17 million thus far, falling short of its goal. Democratic lawmakers in the state argue it’s more money than they had before, when the drug was being sold illegally.

However, tax revenues are also picking up this year, as more pot shops become active in the state. In January, businesses in Colorado sold a record amount of marijuana, resulting in $2.35 million in tax dollars earmarked for public schools.

Lake, the Democratic strategist who has worked in the state, insists coming out strong on the issue could make or break a candidate: “It’s a total win for Democrats. Opinions are shifting very rapidly, but in most of the states it’s running, it’s testing high 50s, low 60s. Democrats would be lucky to be in high 50s, low 60s.” 

This issue is “going to start affecting individual campaigns going forward,” said Morgan Fox, a spokesman at the Marijuana Policy Project. “Particularly as support grows for ending marijuana prohibition, candidates that remain in the ‘war-on-drugs’ mentality are going to find themselves losing support.”