By John Schroyer
A new poll by Quinnipiac University has the cannabis community talking once again about political momentum heading into the 2016 election cycle.
The poll found not just overwhelming support for medical marijuana in a trio of key battleground presidential states, but also that a slim majority of voters in those states back recreational legalization.
The survey focused on what Quinnipiac calls “three critical swing states” – Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania – noting that no presidential candidate since 1960 has won the White House without winning at least two of the three.
As such, any of those three states could conceivably turn the tide for the national election, which means marijuana has become potentially a make-or-break issue for would-be presidents.
“This year, (presidential candidates) will be forced to take some kind of stance on marijuana,” said Kris Krane, managing partner at 4Front Advisors. “If there are marijuana questions on the ballot in 2016, that might actually have an impact on the presidential election itself.”
What all of this means for the cannabusiness community is that it’s increasingly unlikely that the industry will be negatively impacted by the 2016 elections. If anything, the emerging political power of marijuana will open up even more business opportunities in coming years.
Here’s a closer look at how the poll’s findings may play into cannabis activism in the three states.
It’s no secret that United for Care, the group that was behind the 2014 medical marijuana ballot measure in the Sunshine State, is ramping up for a second try in 2016. And Quinnipiac’s poll found that 84% of Florida voters back MMJ, along with 55% who support legalizing recreational cannabis.
Last year, Amendment 2, which would have legalized MMJ, got more than 3.3 million votes out of 5.8 million votes cast. While that’s a significant majority, it was short of the 60% supermajority it needed to become law.
Give the measure the boost in turnout typically associated with presidential election years, coupled with the fact that there are nearly 12 million registered voters, and observers are more than confident that next year MMJ will become law.
Still, campaign manager Ben Pollara is cautious.
“As we learned in 2014, there’s a big difference between general support for the concept of medical marijuana and actual support for the ballot amendment itself,” Pollara wrote in an email to campaign supporters on Monday.
Leading up to last fall’s election, one poll found that 88% of Florida voters supported MMJ. That optimistic view was followed by months of varying polling results, and come Election Day, just under 58% of voters backed Amendment 2.
For example, if former Florida governor Jeb Bush wins the GOP nomination and takes a stand against MMJ as he did last summer, it could cost him the state if the Democratic nominee decides to come out in favor of medical cannabis.
The poll was welcome news for ResponsibleOhio, which is working to get a first-of-its-kind measure before state voters this November: one that would legalize both recreational and medical in one fell swoop. The initiative has not yet qualified for the ballot.
Quinnipiac found that 84% of voters in the state back MMJ, and 52% support legalizing recreational.
“To already have any majority of voters supporting the full legalization of marijuana in Ohio is exciting,” said Lydia Bolander, spokeswoman for ResponsibleOhio. The group has a campaign war chest totaling in the millions of dollars.
Yet many observers see Ohio as an uphill battle, particularly because 2015 is an off-off-year election that won’t feature any prime draws for voters, such as races for the governor’s mansion, the U.S. Senate, or the White House. In addition, the poll showed Of respondents, 44% specifically opposed legalizing marijuana for adult use as a concept, even before the specific ballot language is considered.
“They (off-year elections) just tend to not be very good elections for marijuana issues, because voter turnout is extremely depressed,” Krane said. “The people who do turn out to vote are typically the demographic we get the least amount of support from, which is seniors. Young people for all intents and purposes don’t vote at all in these off-year elections, and that’s where we have our greatest support.”
Regardless, ResponsibleOhio likely already has the resources to weather a defeat if they either don’t qualify for the ballot or if voters shoot them down in November. Bolander refused to speculate on 2016, saying only “We’ll cross that bridge if we come to it.” If it does come to it, the group already has the money to fund a second campaign if they choose to, and there are at least two other groups that are also pushing their own versions of legalization for next year.
And if 2016 is the year for the Ohio initiative, marijuana could play a major role in the presidential race. In 2012, the year that both Colorado and Washington State legalized recreational use, Barack Obama was up for re-election, which drove turnout. And in Colorado, marijuana proved more popular than the sitting president, garnering roughly 60,000 more votes.
Pennsylvania, like roughly half the country, doesn’t have an initiative process; all new laws must come directly from the state legislature.
While that lessens the political impact the marijuana issue could have on a popular vote, the Quinnipiac poll could conceivably give a bill at the state Capitol the legs it needs to succeed, Krane suggested. And once enshrined in Pennsylvania law, supporters of the measure will focus on the states rights stances of the presidential candidates.
The Quinnipiac poll found that nearly 90% of voters in Pennsylvania support MMJ, along with 51% that back recreational.
“Pennsylvania may actually be the state where a poll like this would have the most real-world impact, in that you have legislators that are considering legislation this year, at a time when it probably has its best chance of passage,” Krane said.
Not only has a bill been introduced already, but the state’s new governor, Tom Wolf, has openly backed legalizing MMJ. By association, that means that a 2016 presidential candidate who doesn’t pledge to respect states’ rights on marijuana legalization runs the risk of alienating a solid voting bloc in Pennsylvania.
John Schroyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.