Marijuana Initiatives Could Bump Youth Vote, Help Democrats

Tuesday, 06 May 2014 02:49 PM

By Andrea Billups

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As generational attitudes toward marijuana use and decriminalization widen, the number of states taking up marijuana laws — both recreational and medicinal — have some wondering if the issue may be one that drives millennial voters to the polls to the benefit of Democrats.

A George Washington University Battleground Poll released in late March seems to add credence that the single issue has legs. The survey found not only that a majority of Americans — 73 percent — approve of legalizing marijuana, but 68 percent said it would inspire them to vote.

Across the country, marijuana laws are getting a toehold with Colorado allowing the sale of pot for recreational use and Washington state regulators planning to issue retail licenses for marijuana sales this summer, both following voter approval of ballot initiatives.

States such as Alaska and Oregon are set to vote this year on legalization ballot measures, which some believe will pique youth interest. Also, 14 states and the District of Columbia allow medicinal pot use.

"There seems to be a lot of political engagement around that issue than any other issue," said Jon Walker, a senior policy analyst for the progressive blog Fire Dog Lake, which leads the "Just Say Now" campaign for marijuana legalization.

"There have been a substantial number of volunteers associated with these campaigns," Walker told Newsmax. "There seems to be some indication that it is an issue young people care about, and so a certain subset of young people is likely to go vote because of it."

Florida voters will take to the polls in November to decide on amending the state's constitution to allow use of medical marijuana. The latest poll of registered voters from Gravis Marketing, released last week and commissioned by Human Events, found 60 percent of voters supporting the amendment and 32 opposing it with 8 percent undecided. That figure is a crucial threshold, as state law requires 60 percent to amend the constitution.

Regardless of the outcome of the ballot initiative, Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott — locked in a tough re-election bid with Democratic opponent former Gov. Charlie Crist — says he will sign a bill approved by a bipartisan vote of legislators that allows use of a medical marijuana strain low in THC.

In the next presidential election cycle, Walker predicts that there could be at least half a dozen states, including some swing states, with marijuana laws before voters.

"We'll probably see Massachusetts, Maine, California, Nevada … a big push in these states. Potentially also Arizona and maybe even Ohio or perhaps Michigan," he said.

While drug awareness programs had success in limiting marijuana use among youth, charting a decline "from the late '90s until the mid to late 2000s," according to the federal government's drugabuse.gov, it has since made a comeback.

In 2013, 6.5 percent of all high school seniors said they used marijuana daily, up from 5 percent in the mid-2000s.

In the same year, federal data showed that 7 percent of eighth-graders, 18 percent of 10th-graders and nearly a quarter of all 12th-graders said they had smoked pot in the past month. By turn, in 2008, those figures were 5.8 percent, 13.8 percent and 19.4 percent, showing an uptick that the government noted was tied with perception that usage was safe.

Noted the website: "Young people are showing less disapproval of marijuana use and decreased perception that marijuana is dangerous. The growing perception of marijuana as a safe drug may reflect recent public discussions over 'medical marijuana' and movements to legalize the drug for adult recreational use in some states."

As for changes in public opinion, Walker says it is only a matter of time before full legalization occurs, noting that one recent poll found that 75 percent of Americans think that it is "inevitable." Differences in support are marked between seniors who oppose it in high numbers and younger voters, who support it overwhelmingly.

"The success of marijuana reform has often been driven by going to the ballot," he said. "That has been the modus operandi of the reform movement. I think we are going to see this play out big time over the next two elections" in 2014 and 2016.

The question remains, however, whether marijuana initiatives will inspire youth who may be turned off to voting by the ineffective tenure of President Barack Obama, who once held their appeal, but whose initiative failures have diminished the kind of hope that once lured many in.

"I would say there is a sort of a disconnect with young people with politics right now. I think one thing with marijuana on the ballot, it's a very clear-cut way for young people to be involved in politics," Walker said. "There are a lot of young people who are very disenchanted because Obama didn't really deliver to them on his promises for change."

But Walker added that while young people may not turn out in droves over a marijuana ballot proposal, even a 2 percent or 3 percent boost in turnout could have the potential to swing it for Democrats in a close election.

According to a Gallup poll in March, youth voters' "affinity" for the Democratic Party is rising since 2006, marking a 30-point affiliation advantage with voters under 30.

Republicans are taking the notion of a youth surge seriously, although hard evidence for a pot groundswell at the polls for Democrats seems scant.

"The truth is, we don't really know how salient this issue will be," said Florida Republican political consultant Alex Patton of Ozean Media.

Patton says Florida Democrats will take the ball and run with the marijuana issue in what as seen as a tight governor's race, calling it a "scheme hatched by Charlie Crist and his law partner."

"The Democrats have finally admitted that this is their plan in order to attract new voters and to try to push us the youth vote," Patton told Newsmax. "In the gubernatorial years, the youth vote carries much less turnout than a presidential year. And I think what we are expecting here is a very close race, and everybody is looking to pull every lever they can."

For that reason, Republicans are paying attention, he adds, noting that on a national level, "I think this is probably going to be a bigger portion of the Democrats' strategy going into 2016."

As for 2014, Patton adds: "If there is only one issue to get a 19-year-old stoner off his couch and to the polls, it really is this one. We really don't know what will happen, but you have a lot of people who are trying because the election in Florida is going to be close."

The marijuana issue, he adds, has the potential to be a wedge issue between the social conservative wing of the Republican Party, who oppose it, and the more libertarian wing, which would support it.

"These are major issues that blow wide open social conservatives and the libertarian wing of the party. And these could be the types of issue they use to decide how they vote."

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