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Marijuana to become hot button election issue in 2016?

Published time: January 23, 2014 17:07
Reuters / Rick Wilking

Reuters / Rick Wilking

Could the recreational use of marijuana become a wedge issue that influences elections in 2016? That’s what pot advocate are hoping for, as they look to the next major election cycle to legalize the substance in numerous states.

Coming off the heels of President Barack Obama’s latest remarks on pot – in which he stated his belief that it is no more dangerous than smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol – many activists who support marijuana legalization are theorizing that the issue could play a big role in boosting turnout among younger voters.

Last year marked a significant shift in public opinion when it came to marijuana. As we reported in April, a nationwide Pew poll showed that for the first time in the survey’s history, a majority of Americans believe pot should be legalized. Now, some groups even think that candidates who fail to support legalization will be hurt by their position.

"It will be to their peril,” Colorado Democratic consultant Jill Hanauer said to the Huffington Post regarding candidates against pot, “because millennials will be such huge segment of the voting public in 2016 … they're going to lose a huge segment of the voting public for good if they try to stop what's happening in American culture."

The activist group Marijuana Policy Project echoed Hanauer’s beliefs, pointing to exit polls in 2012 that showed marijuana legalization gathering a greater share of the millennial vote than Obama himself.

"It appears having marijuana-related initiatives on the ballot produce a greater turnout among younger voters," Mason Tvert of the MPP told the Post. "If a candidate takes a position against marijuana policy reform, or if they choose to ignore it, they shouldn't be surprised when those younger voters choose not to vote for them."

Still, the issue may not be as cut-and-dry as supporters believe. While exit polls depicted a jump in the youth vote ranging anywhere from five to 12 percent in states where pot legalization was on the ballot, other studies didn’t quite come to the same conclusion. According to a Census Current Population survey, the youth vote decreased in Washington, where marijuana legalization passed with a 55 percent majority.

"The big picture is that it's not anywhere near the top of young people's issue priorities,” said Peter Levine, director of the youth voting research center CIRCLE, to the Huffington Post.“Their issue priorities are always jobs and education and other issues … drug legalization hardly polls at all."

Another factor that could complicate marijuana’s influence on the 2016 elections is that many of the states looking to legalize the drug aren’t swing states. Maine and California are Democratic strongholds, while Montana and Wyoming are solid Republican territory. Arizona and Nevada, meanwhile, could be seen as tossups for the next presidential election.

Some aren't even waiting until 2016 to take action. Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, DC, are all moving to take up marijuana legalization during the 2014 midterms, since advocates believe there is enough support to pass the measures without needing to rely on the youth vote that’s typically drawn out by presidential cycles.

While the issue’s influence in the general election remains contested, it seems clear that tolerance for marijuana use is growing even as some anti-pot groups like Project SAM warn of potential backlash. In addition to public majorities in favor of legalization, New York is moving to legalize medical marijuana use, while the National Football League has left the door open to allowing its players to smoke medicinal pot in the future.