Cannabis legalization is growing in popularity — even among Republicans — but party leadership shows little indication of embracing it. And cannabis industry advocates say that could mean missing out on voters come November.
"Especially I would argue for Republicans and for President Trump, it's a tremendous missed opportunity because they are running against the only Democratic candidate from the original primary field that was not in support. This would be an opportunity for them to put some light in between themselves and Democrats and really own an issue that could help them win young voters in particular," said Kris Krane, president of cannabis multistate operator 4Front Ventures.
More than half of Republicans — about 51 percent — support cannabis legalization, according to Gallup's annual Crime survey, published in October 2019. About 48 percent of people who identify as conservative favor legalization. It's numbers like that that often prompt cannabis industry insiders and advocates to tout the bipartisan nature of the legalization.
Comments from party leaders like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), though, pay no heed to broader support for cannabis in the party. McConnell ridiculed his Democratic colleagues for attempting to include cannabis banking reform in the HEROES Act, calling it "a totally unserious effort."
"The bold new policy from Washington Democrats that will kick the coronavirus to the curb and save American families from this crisis, here it is, here it is: new annual studies on diversity and inclusion within the cannabis industry," McConnell said during a speech in May.
As a senator from Kentucky, McConnell was instrumental in industrial hemp legalization, but has maintained that marijuana and hemp are "two entirely separate plants," and he has no plans to support marijuana legalization, The Hill reported.
Attorney General William Barr, recognized widely as an establishment Republican, professed a more hands-off approach to cannabis legalization than his predecessor Jeff Sessions. But in recent months, a whistleblower alleged, amid a broader investigation into corruption in the Justice Department, that antitrust investigations into cannabis mergers, which in some cases contributed to their demise, were personally and politically motivated.
As for President Trump, he has remained ambivalent on the topic. He said in 2018 he would likely support a bill like the STATES Act, which recognizes state-level cannabis industries but also reserves the right to ignore congressional medical marijuana protections a year later, according to Marijuana Moment.
The rhetoric and actions of Republican leaders do little to reinforce the idea that cannabis legalization is a bipartisan issue, but support continues to grow among young voters and elected officials, alike.
"It does tend to be a little bit more generational when it comes to the Republicans and so I think part of the reason why they're seen as quite a bit more anti-cannabis is because leadership in the party tends to be older, and older Republicans tend to be not as favorable on this issue. But among the rank and file and even elected officials, the younger Republicans tend to be much more supportive," Krane said.
According to Gallup, 81 percent of adults under the age of 30 support cannabis legalization, and 80 percent of millennials do. Support drops among older generations. For Gen X, support drops to 63 percent — and 61 percent among Baby Boomers (President Trump's generation). And as for the Silent Generation, which claims McConnell, only 41 percent support cannabis legalization.
Among millennial Republicans, 63 percent support legalization, according to a 2015 Pew Research poll.
Some of the loudest Republican voices are staunchly anti-cannabis, but there is support among elected officials — many of them younger. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) all support state-rights' approaches to cannabis legalization. The age divide is not set in stone — Representatives Don Young (R-Ala.) and David Joyce (R-Ohio) are both co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, according to NORML, and both are over the age of 60. Young is 87 years old.
Given that cannabis is such a popular issue among young voters, 4Front's Krane said that the Republican party would have much to gain from embracing it — and little to lose. Trump's very loyal base has stuck with him through worse than cannabis legalization.
"I see virtually no downside to somebody like President Trump coming out in support of this, but there is a tremendous upside. There are a lot of young voters who are not particularly enthusiastic about supporting Biden, but they are the strongest demographic when it comes to support for legalization," he said.
Come November, there could be ample opportunity to win over young voters. Several states including Arizona, New Jersey, South Dakota, and Montana will have adult-use cannabis legalization on the ballot and others will have medical initiatives. Exit polling after the 2012 elections in Colorado and Washington suggested a bump in youth turnout during years with cannabis initiatives — although that data has since been contested.
Cannabis may not be a top priority for a lot of voters, but Krane said a party that took a decisive position on legalization could pull support from undecided voters