Why Marijuana Legalization Is a Gateway Voting Issue

Five states are voting on medical or recreational marijuana legalization this November.
Kate McKee Simons
Five states are voting on medical or recreational marijuana legalization this November.

The cannabis vote, a bloc largely made up of young people who might not vote otherwise, is still coveted in election season, even in Colorado. Several local ballots (those of Lakewood, Littleton and Broomfield, in particular) will include questions about allowing recreational cannabis sales, and both the presidential and congressional elections will have an impact on the future of federal pot legalization.

For the Cannabis Voter Project, though, the plant is just the tip of the iceberg.

A nonprofit that informs and registers people who are interested in cannabis issues, the Cannabis Voter Project uses pot legalization to encourage potential voters to take part in all of their democratic duties on election day, not just the weed-related ones. The organization is currently running campaigns in the five states voting on cannabis legalization this year — Arizona (recreational), Mississippi (medical), Montana (recreational), New Jersey (recreational), South Dakota (medical and recreational) — to increase overall turnout at the ballot box.

But in order to connect with the cannabis voter, you have to provide something that sparks them first. We caught up with Sam D'Arcangelo, director of the Cannabis Voter Project, to learn more about the power of the pot vote, and what the chances of success are for cannabis legalization efforts across the country.

Westword: Why do we keep seeing a bump in marijuana ballot initiatives during presidential elections?

Sam D'Arcangelo: Presidential elections tend to have higher turnout than midterm elections, and there's a general consensus that marijuana initiatives are more likely to pass when turnout is high. On the flip side of that, one of the things we're really interested in at the Cannabis Voter Project is the potential for marijuana-related ballot initiatives to increase voter turnout in their own right. Right now, we're running a "Text Out the Vote" campaign aimed at likely supporters of legalization in Arizona and other states that will be voting on marijuana this year.

We've got dozens of volunteers sending out text messages every week, starting conversations with thousands of voters like this. We believe this issue has the power to break through the apathy that a lot of young people have for the political process, and motivate people who otherwise would not vote to go to the polls. I like to say it's a gateway issue that gets many young people excited about civic participation.

Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, South Dakota and Mississippi are all considering recreational or medical legalization this year. How many of those states have a good chance of approving these measures?

Polls have shown majority support for adult use and medical marijuana in the states that are voting on them this year, but there also hasn't been that much polling, so it's tough to get a solid idea of where things stand. All of them could pass, but no one should be positive that any of them will. People who care about this issue may have good reasons to be optimistic, but they should not be complacent. It's critical that everyone makes sure their friends and family are both registered and ready to vote.

What states could be considering legalization in the near future?

Pennsylvania is seriously discussing legalization right now, and many other Northeastern states have debated it extensively in recent years. I think that debate is likely to accelerate significantly if New Jersey approves its initiative in November. On the ballot initiative front, Florida, Missouri and Ohio are all states where activists are exploring the possibility of putting something before voters in 2022. Nebraska activists are also eager to pursue a medical marijuana initiative in 2022, having just had one removed from the ballot by the state's Supreme Court.

Do you consider marijuana a bipartisan issue?

In terms of how voters see the issue, marijuana legalization is certainly bipartisan. Recent polls have found that a majority of Democratic, Republican and Independent voters support legalizing marijuana.

How will this election shape the future of marijuana legalization at the federal/congressional level?

The House of Representatives is gearing up to vote on the MORE Act, which is a comprehensive legalization bill. It has a solid chance of passing the House, but almost certainly isn't going anywhere in today's Senate. The makeup of the Senate after 2020 will have a huge impact on whether or not marijuana reform is able to make progress at the federal level.

What comes first, federal legalization or the majority of states legalizing cannabis by themselves?

It's not unreasonable to think that a comprehensive marijuana legalization bill could be passed by Congress in the next few years, but it very much depends on what Congress looks like after the 2020 election.