By Daniel Newhauser
WASHINGTON — Marijuana legalization is more popular than both political parties and both presidential candidates, but even with legalization initiatives on the ballot in several states, many high profile candidates there have shied away from taking a stand on the issue this year.
That comes despite belief from some marijuana advocates and researchers — and apparently President Donald Trump — that campaigning in favor of relaxing marijuana restrictions could be a net winner for Democratic candidates, especially in close races that may be decided by a few points at the margins.
But the problem for uber cautious candidates is that belief and data are two very different things. The fact is there remains a lack of definitive proof to back up the idea that a marijuana ballot initiative the same year as a close statewide race drives voters toward a pro-cannabis candidate. And this year, when turnout is expected to be up across the board for several other reasons, it will be hard to know whether weed is a salient issue itself, or just one of many lost in the fog of 2020 politics.
How Long are Cannabis’ Coattails?
John Hudak, an expert on marijuana legalization at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, has a name for the phenomenon of increased voter turnout when pot is on the ballot: Cannabis coattails. He’s studied how states like Colorado and Washington saw massive youth voter increases in 2012 when marijuana legalization initiatives were on each state’s ballots — turnout bumps relative not just to other years in those states but compared to other states that year.
He said pro-adult-use marijuana voters tend to break disproportionately in favor of Democratic candidates, thus higher turnout due to cannabis legalization should help Democrats. But outside of Washington and Colorado, he added, there has been little evidence that ballot initiatives systematically drive turnout, so some candidates might still be stuck in the past.
“It is critical to remember that drug reform for decades was a quick path to political suicide — or at least that was the perception,” Hudak told The News Station. “While cannabis reform is popular, it isn’t salient. That is, people support it, but they don’t give a damn about it. They care about a lot of other policy issues first. Once candidates’ positions on cannabis start jeopardizing their political success, you will see an even greater embrace of cannabis reform.”
On a whole, more candidates nationwide have been embracing weed like never before. MJ Hegar, who is running to unseat Republican Sen. John Cornyn in Texas, has voiced her support for legalization. Jon Ossoff, the Democratic Senate candidate in Georgia, has said he supports full nationwide legalization of marijuana. And in Colorado, the value proposition has flipped so much in the years since their successful legalization, that any statewide candidate who’s against weed is no longer considered viable.
November’s Ballot Bonanza
But in states where a ballot initiative is in play this year — and where major statewide swing elections could be decided by only a handful of votes — candidates have been mum. Voters in Arizona, Mississippi and Montana won’t just be deciding the fate of the U.S. Senate in November, they’ll also be voting on marijuana ballot initiatives. Arizona and Montana will vote on adult-use legalization, while Mississippi could be the first solidly GOP state in the southeast to legalize medical marijuana.
Former astronaut and current Senate hopeful Mark Kelly, who is taking on GOP Sen. Martha McSally in Arizona, recently broke his silence on the issue. He told local reporters he’d probably vote in favor of Arizona’s proposition 207, though his wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, will probably vote against it — a tepid endorsement at best.
Former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who is looking to unseat GOP Sen. Steve Daines in what may be one of the closest races this year, helped loosen medical marijuana regulations when he was in the governor’s mansion, though in the past he’s opposed outright legalization. He hasn’t spoken up on the issue this year and his campaign did not respond to a request for comment from The News Station. That comes despite a recent Montana State University poll showing 49% of respondents would vote to legalize marijuana.
In Mississippi, former Democratic Rep. Mike Espy is mounting a well-funded rematch against Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde Smith. In the past he voiced interest in supporting medical marijuana in the state, but in the same breath, he articulated safety concerns about allowing pot on the streets. Recent polling has shown high levels of support for allowing medical marijuana in the conservative state.
And it’s not just statewide Democrats in close races that are being shy. For instance, you’d think Hiral Tipirneni, an emergency room doctor and cancer researcher, would have the authority to speak on the issue. She’s running to unseat GOP Rep. David Schweikert in Arizona’s 6th District — which is largely the northeast suburbs of Phoenix — in one of the closest races in the country. But she hasn’t mentioned it, and her campaign declined to comment to The News Station.
Schweikert on the other hand? He told The News Station that although he’s inclined toward libertarian views on drug policy, he’ll probably vote against this initiative.
“There’s a real angst, particularly with parents about the leakage from the medical. How much of it is ending up into [the hands of] minors?” he said. “I’m also the dad of a five year old. And that’s actually my concern.”
#AZPOP #POLL: Support for legalizing Marijuana in the State of Arizona— OHPI (@OHPredictive) September 29, 2020
n= 600 LVs, MOE +/- 4.0%, Survey Conducted 9/8- 9/10
Read our full analysis here: https://t.co/ofCA0ieH6g pic.twitter.com/8lGykiJo45
Why are Politicians Mum?
Some of the silence could be due to the fact that amid coronavirus lockdowns, it can be hard to gauge grassroots enthusiasm for the initiatives, even anecdotally. That comes especially as major colleges, like Arizona State University, remain shuttered. Hoi Ming Lee McVey, a leader of the ASU Downtown Students for Sensible Drug Policy, has been studying from home in Madison, Wisc.
“We can’t swing around campus, you know, doing tabling and student outreach, like we usually would, just because there aren’t that many students on campus to begin with right now,” she told The News Station. “There is, I wouldn’t say excitement, but there’s definitely hope that this time, Arizona will be able to actually pass adult use.”
Other groups are working the phones as a result. Sam D’Arcangelo, director of the Cannabis Voter Project, said he and his group have been texting and registering thousands of voters in these states around the issue of marijuana reform.
“There’s evidence that putting cannabis initiatives on the ballot increases youth voter turnout,” he told The News Station. “Depending on how close certain races are, small bumps in turnout across the board can have impacts on the races.”
But there’s another hiccup this year: turnout is already expected to be sky high, not because of marijuana, but because of Trump. If you asked voters what’s motivating them to support Democrats in Senate races this year, blocking the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, preserving Obamacare, and kicking Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to the curb are consistently on the top of liberal and progressive voters’ to-do lists.
“I’m not convinced that this year it’s going to be as big of a difference maker as it might have been in the past, just because I think this is such a polarizing election that the people that were going to be talked into voting are going to be voting,” Jeffrey Zucker, vice chair of the Marijuana Policy Project, which has been active in pushing the Montana and Mississippi ballot initiatives, told The News Station.
Marijuana Isn’t as Exciting in 2020
Despite the craziness of this election, no ballot initiative exists in a vacuum. A number of idiosyncratic state factors always make it hard to tie increased turnout directly to any one issue. In Montana, for instance, there are several other ballot initiatives up for a vote, including one loosening gun restrictions, so the turnout could be a wash. Confusingly, Mississippi has two competing medical marijuana legalization initiatives on its ballot — one approved by voters and a more narrow version added by the legislature.
All that leads Hudak, the marijuana expert at Brookings, to think the cannabis coattails might actually work the other way around this year.
“If the competitive races in these states drive out additional Democratic voters—who may not have turned out otherwise,” Hudak said, “those voters may break in favor of cannabis reform.”