These days, pretty much everyone is talking about pot – except for national Democrats. And that might be a mistake on their part, because discussing marijuana legalization could be the way into the hearts of millennial voters.
A PEW Researcher poll from April 2015 shows that 53% of respondents are in favor of legalizing marijuana, a huge jump from 2006, when 32% were in support. The millennial generation represents the greatest jump in support; 68% of millennials support marijuana legalization in 2015, compared to only 34% in 2006.
Despite this increase in pro-legalization desires, though, none of the national Democratic candidates are including pot legalization on their platforms. Hillary Clinton says that she’s still waiting to see how legalization works in Colorado. Bernie Sanders supports medical marijuana, but has not voiced his support for legalization on a national level. Martin O’Malley firmly opposed legalization in 2014, when he described it as “a gateway to even more harmful behavior” during a radio talk show, though he does back measures to lessen criminal punishment for certain kinds of possession.
Millennials are frustrated by the absence of productive debate about marijuana policy at the national level. “I think it should be a big component because it is a hot topic,” said Drake University junior Parker Stinski. “I think by not considering it in their platform, they’re missing a pretty big opportunity to win a lot of voters.”
A case study from Florida may support Stinski’s attitude. During the 2014 midterm elections, Florida included Amendment 2 on the ballot. The Amendment 2 initiative would have legalized medical marijuana in Florida had it garnered 60% of the vote. Unfortunately for proponents of marijuana legalization, the initiative only received 57% of the vote and failed to pass.
But national Democrats need to pay attention to a different set of numbers. Florida saw a 10% increase in voters during the 2014 midterm election compared to the 2010 elections. Even more telling was the increase in millennial turnout. Exit polls showed that millennials increased their share of the participating voters by 6%, a huge jump for a generation that many like to call “disengaged.”
“It could just be a correlation, but given other data about off-year elections, I would suspect that the medical marijuana amendment on the ballot drove voter turnout,” said Liz Bennett, an Iowa State Representative from Cedar Rapids.
Bennett looks to her own campaign efforts for more evidence about the topic’s ability to interest millennial voters. “As soon as I announced my candidacy, people from all different political backgrounds were asking about marijuana legalization,” Bennett said. “People are talking about it on campuses; people have reached out to me on Facebook about it.”
Sophomore Drake student Tom Lewis agrees that marijuana legalization is a topic that piques his interest. “If a candidate is legalizing pot, yeah, I would hear him out more,” Lewis said. “Him or her.”
For millennials like Lewis and Stinski, there is one candidate who is talking a bit more openly about marijuana policy. Surprisingly, that candidate is not a Democrat. He is none other than Rand Paul, one of the many Republicans vying for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.
In 2014, Rand Paul said that he thinks putting someone in jail for marijuana possession is “ridiculous.” The Kentucky Senator is also involved in a bill that would make it impossible for the federal government to prosecute medical marijuana dealers and users in states where the drug is legal.
No one is denying the strides that have been made towards legalizing marijuana on the state level, but Rand Paul is the only big-name candidate to bring policy reform at the national spotlight. He falls just short of outright legalization for recreational use, but still supports medical marijuana and relaxed punishments for pot possession. And millennials are taking note.
“I love Rand Paul,” Stinski said. “It’s what people want to see. I do think people will vote for him. I hope they do. I will.”
There are arguments that Rand Paul will not be able to truly capture millennials’ hearts because he tends to vote conservatively on other issues like marriage equality. But national Democrats do need to watch how millennials react to Paul’s stances on marijuana legalization. So far, it’s positively.
So why are Democrats letting this opportunity pass by? The answer may lie in historically low election turnout amongst millennials. While 68% say they support marijuana legalization, only four-in-ten millennials agree with this statement: “It’s my duty as a citizen to vote.”
“I think there’s a lot of worry about whether or not the people who take these polls will actually show up at the ballot box,” said Bennett.
Lewis himself admits that he did not vote in the 2014 election. “I didn’t feel properly represented in who was running,” Lewis said. “After the voting, I just felt absolutely stupid because I didn’t do anything to change anything in the government to benefit me and my generation.”
The fact is, the Baby Boomer generation votes more than the millennial generation, but they are less in favor of marijuana legalization. Members of the older Silent Generations are even less enthused on the policy. So it makes sense to back off the legalization rhetoric when the voting population appears to be a bit more conservative.
Furthermore, young people support a host of values, and not every millennial will vote based strictly upon marijuana policies. “I would look at his other issues and his other points on his platform, judge off of that,” Lewis said. “But pot’s a plus.”
Finally, while the majority of millennials do support marijuana legalization, there is a group that would not be attracted to a candidate who makes it a part of their platform. Donny Hughes, a sophomore at Drake University, says he would not feel moved to vote for a candidate in favor of marijuana legalization. “I think there’s more harm than good that comes out of it,” Hughes said.
Despite these qualifications, 69% of millennials do want marijuana to be legalized. These millennials have put politicians in a double bind. Candidates running for president in 2016 desperately want the millennial vote, but have thus far avoided a topic that seems to make young people listen up. To break this stand-off, somebody needs to take a risk.
“I think that if any one of the candidates, Republican or Democrat, decided to be bold on this issue, they are going to pull millennial voters,” Bennett said. “Those millennial voters will be motivated to go out and vote on this issue, and I think that it could be something that could tip things a little bit in the favor of a candidate who does come out with a bold stance.”
by Angela Ufheil