Several states will be voting on whether or not to legalize marijuana in the 2016 election. We know for sure that Arizona, California, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts will be voting on the issue, and that Missouri, Michigan, and Florida might join that group soon.
That's how the question arises: Will states voting on legalizing marijuana affect who becomes the next president?
Nevada and Florida are both sought-after swing states: Whoever wins in those states often wins the election. So how do things change in the upcoming presidential election if marijuana is likely to be legalized in these states?
"The backers for a lot of these [marijuana] initiatives are smart," John Hudak, a fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institute, told ATTN:. "They recognize that turnout for issues that have a bit of a liberal slant do better in presidential election years, when turnout is higher and younger people, people of color, and nontraditional voters tend to come out and vote. When you run these initiatives in off years, you run the risk of a more conservative, older voting pool, who's less likely to support something like marijuana legalization."
Not only do liberal-leaning initiatives typically get more support during presidential elections, Hudak said, things like marijuana legalization also tend to bring out voters who otherwise might have chosen not to vote. "They are voting because there's an initiative on the ballot," he said. "That can actually help Democrats, so having these initiatives in swing states in particular in a presidential election year is something the Democratic nominee is likely to benefit from. We have evidence of that happening in Washington and Colorado in 2012." He said people who adamantly oppose such legalization, who are mostly older voters, tend to vote consistently anyway.
"The data on whether the imposition of a marijuana-specific ballot initiative stimulates higher-than-average youth turnout is mixed, with some indication that these measures may have triggered youth turnout in 2012, but not so much in 2014," Paul Armentano, the deputy director of the marijuana-advocacy group NORML, told ATTN:. Like Hudak, he recognizes that these issues can be affected by the kind of election in which they are placed.
In any case, Armentano said that he thinks the politicians who are currently leading the pack in the race need to step up their game when it comes to marijuana.
"Too many politicians in both parties continue to deny the reality that public and scientific opinion are in direct conflict with federal marijuana policy," he said. "In the 2016 presidential race, it is inherent that the candidates from both political parties recognize that advocating for marijuana law reform is a political opportunity, not a political liability."
Hudak also believes there could be benefits to coming out in favor of some kind of marijuana reform. "I don't think any candidate would be harmed by a true, very bold public embrace of medical marijuana," he said. Just over half of the country supports legalizing recreational marijuana; that's not unanimous support. But a far greater number support medical marijuana: Several polls have shown that more than 80 percent of the public supports making medical marijuana accessible nationwide.
To date, none of the candidates have come out in support of completely legalizing marijuana, which many argue would be better than decriminalizing it, but some have said positive things about medical marijuana here and there.
Hudak believes focusing on medical marijuana could lead to "a broader discussion about the role of government, about health care, [and] about veterans' issues."
Among Democratic candidates, Hudak said he thinks Hillary Clinton would essentially continue what President Barack Obama has done, which is maintain the federal law and observe the states that legalize.
As for Bernie Sanders, Hudak is surprised that he has not been more vocally supportive of marijuana. All Sanders has said is that he supports ending the war on drugs, supports medical marijuana, and thinks marijuana should be decriminalized.
On the Republican side, Rand Paul is the only candidate who shows any sign of supporting marijuana policy reform, Hudak said, and he mostly just talks about medical marijuana.
"The 2016 Presidential hopefuls ought to be more concerned with positioning themselves to be on the right side of history than on trying to appease a vocal minority that is woefully out of touch with both changing public and scientific opinion," Armentano said.