This Election Day marks 10 years since voters in Colorado and Washington state legalized weed. More states soon followed, and today, 19 have legalized the still federally illegal drug, while another 20 or so allow medical use. Legal weed is here to stay. Most people like it. A November 2021 Gallup poll found 68 percent of the public supports nationwide legalization. More than 80 percent of Democrats favor it, and Republicans are evenly split. In 2020, five states of varying hues voted on medical or recreational use—Arizona, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota—and all of them passed it. It outperformed Joe Biden in every case.
“Legalization illustrates the power of voting more than any other issue in living memory,” Sam D’Arcangelo, director of the Cannabis Voter Project at Headcount, a non-profit that registers voters at concerts, festivals and other events, said. “It’s a way government has improved lives.”
Thus far, however, legalization has played only a marginal role in national electoral politics. There are three related reasons: You don’t get elected taking away the people’s weed, and pot-skeptical pols have learned to evolve or keep quiet. Second, they can get away with that silence because many legalization supporters running for office aren’t comfortable making it a centerpiece of their campaigns anyway. Third, the importance of state ballot initiatives in advancing legalization further distances the issue from the campaigns of individual politicians. The result is often that both sides’ major candidates ignore, and therefore neutralize, the weed vote.
But this year is different, and it could set the tone for several election cycles to come. Federal legalization is on Congress’ agenda for the first time since the Carter administration. Almost all observers expect it to happen this decade. More immediately, legalization differentiates the candidates in at least four of November’s marquee races: Texas governor, Pennsylvania Senate, and Florida’s gubernatorial and Senate races. Though legalization is among the least partisan issues out there, each contest pits a pro-legalization Democrat against a Republican who opposes it.
The rule of pot politics, as recently put by legalization supporter Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, is that, “No one has paid a political price ever for supporting cannabis.” In this year’s races, we’ll see if anyone pays a price for opposing it.
Sixteen percent of Americans—more than 50 million people—say they smoke marijuana. The key untested question is how much their use decides their vote, or convinces them to vote, in a way that decides elections. It’s not a question that many political forecasters and pundits emphasize. Weed is something that many people don’t take seriously.
That could be a mistake. The stigma against pot is powerful enough that in 2020 neither presidential candidate endorsed legalization, despite likely knowing that the decision was costing him votes. (Perhaps no other issue has this distinction.) Support for legalization has become the default Democratic position. But during the 2020 campaign, Biden only promised to decriminalize it nationwide and expunge federal cannabis-use convictions. He hasn’t done either, angering cannabis voters, even as Brittney Griner’s imprisonment in Russia has outraged the world and cast a harsh light on the thousands of Americans incarcerated for pot offenses.
Biden’s calculus may be that he is aiming to avoid alienating the centrist and swing voters whom he credits with his electoral victory. But in reality, many of those voters support legalization. I suspect that he and Trump, who as young men in the 1960s had nothing to do with “the ’60s,” have an inchoate sense that legal marijuana is a bad idea and didn’t want to associate themselves with it.
Either way, they underestimated the weed vote. Legalization supporter Rep. Earl Blumenauer argues that Arizona’s 2020 cannabis ballot initiative won Biden the election. With 60 percent support for legalization, the initiative won by more than 600,000 votes, compared to Biden’s margin of about 10,500. The states voting to legalize medical or recreational this November, include Maryland, Missouri, South Dakota, North Dakota and possibly Oklahoma and Arkansas aren’t also hosting key Senate races.
But the weed vote is not merely a matter of delivering more Democrat-leaning voters to the polls. There is a population of single-issue voters who would have switched their 2020 vote from Biden to Trump, or vice versa, if either supported legalization. No one knows how many people feel this way.
There may be more than you’d think: For many cannabis users, the plant isn’t just a way to relax, or even their medicine, it’s also a social-justice movement and an industry that now employs roughly 450,000 Americans.
Even in legal states, cannabis users still face an array of challenges. California, for example, recently enacted laws that bar doctors from discriminating against cannabis users—denying them organ transplants, for example—and prohibit employers from punishing most workers for off-the-clock use. Another new law in the state requires cannabis use to be considered like alcohol, rather than other federally illegal drugs, in determining child-custody cases. Cannabis users generally can’t buy guns. These are just a few ways that show how there are votes and campaign donations waiting for whomever assumes the mantle of tokers’ rights.
The candidate who comes closest is probably Pennsylvania’s earthy lieutenant governor and Democratic Senate candidate, John Fetterman, who has weed leaves on his campaign merch. Fetterman’s longstanding support for legalization fits his everyman persona and he’s even hectored Biden on the issue, which polled at 60 percent in Pennsylvania last year. Fetterman’s opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz, responded by releasing a weird ad in which a bong emerges from Fetterman’s animatronic head. It’s not often that candidates mock industries employing 25,000 of their would-be constituents.
Legalization is another reason not to bet against Fetterman, who’s already the favorite in his race. But for weed to emerge as a major campaign issue in 2024, it probably needs to figure in an upset. In Texas, the medical industry is very limited, but full legalization has 55 percent support. Next-door Oklahoma has a freewheeling medical weed industry with at least one 24-hour dispensary on the states’ border. If Democrat candidate and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke wins, or even outperforms his race’s polling, support for weed will be a reason why.
The odds for weed delivering a clear electoral payoff might be best in Florida, home to the country’s largest medical-only weed market. Stalwart legalization opponent Sen. Marco Rubio, has a narrow lead against Rep. Val Demmings, who has voted several times for legalization and other reforms.
In the governor’s race, sure-to-be future presidential candidate Ron DeSantis has expressed his distaste for the plant’s “putrid” smell. But for a politician who’s built his reputation as a right-wing culture warrior, DeSantis hasn’t picked this fight. Brady Cobb, the politically savvy CEO of Florida-based Sunburn Cannabis, told me DeSantis has quietly streamlined the regulation process and taken other steps that benefit the industry. Cobb doesn’t expect DeSantis to get in the way when Floridians vote on full legalization, likely in 2024.