The biggest day of the primaries is upon us, with more delegates up for grabs on March 1 than any other time in the race. While marijuana reform is not a priority for most primary voters, the candidates' positions on cannabis could have an impact on how voters perceive them – especially in states where marijuana policy is being discussed.
Only two out of 22 Super Tuesday races are happening in a state or territory where cannabis is completely illegal. Most states have some form of medical marijuana in the books – even if it's just provisions for non-psychoactive CBD oil. Then there are the cannabis-friendly states of Colorado, which is having Democratic and Republican caucuses, and Alaska, where Republicans will be caucusing.
While some analyses show that Bernie Sanders could have a leg up on Hillary Clinton thanks to his more progressive policies on pot, there probably aren't that many marijuana-driven voters. "What is more likely is that his position on marijuana policy is part of a broader set of things that set him apart from her. It's the notion of what makes him viewed as a more progressive candidate," said Mason Tvert, director of communications at the Marijuana Policy Project.
With that in mind, let's have a look at the Super Tuesday races where cannabis legalization is most important.
Alaska is one of four U.S. states that has legalized recreational marijuana, when voters approved a ballot measure in February 2015. The state started accepting license applications just last week, and there are several bills addressing cannabis regulation pending in the legislature.
Republican caucus goers will head to the polls on Tuesday, but very few of them will base their decision solely on the issue of marijuana legalization.
"This could play a role where someone would feel like, 'Hey, Marco Rubio is not such a big supporter of states rights because of what he said about marijuana,'" said Tvert. Among the Republican candidates still standing, Rubio has been the most vocal against state-level legalization, explicitly saying that he would enforce federal drug laws if given the chance.
As the first U.S. state to legalize adult-use cannabis back in 2012, Colorado has been at the forefront of the legalization debate. Even Governor John Hickenlooper, who opposed the ballot measure, has come around to the idea. The state is having both Democratic and Republican caucuses on Tuesday.
Will Colorado's marijuana friendliness impact primary voters in the state? "There's no precedent of [cannabis policy] having any impact on voters," said Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "When you look at polls of the American public [and] what their priorities are… you're not going to find drug policy, you're not going to find marijuana policy on that list."
While Sanders' support for descheduling marijuana makes him more progressive on the issue, both his and Clinton's position on cannabis are close enough that it could not have much of an impact: "Among the Democratic candidates, there isn't concern from either Hillary or Bernie that they would roll back state marijuana laws," said Amanda Reiman, manager of marijuana law and policy at the Drug Policy Alliance.
And as much as it hurts to type the words "Trump" and "reasonable" in the same sentence, experts agree that Donald Trump is the Republican candidate with the most reasonable views on marijuana policy. "Among the Republicans, honestly, Trump has the most outwardly favorable view towards marijuana," said Reiman.
Colorado currently has a slew of pending cannabis bills, including legislation addressing the market's pesticide problems, license application requirements and repealing drug-related mandatory minimums. While weed may not be a make-or-break issue, getting high could make the caucusing a lot more bearable.
Massachusetts has long been seen as one of the more progressive states on marijuana policy. Medical marijuana was passed through a ballot measure in 2012, and an adult-use ballot measure is in the works for 2016. There's also a House bill that would legalize recreational use. The state is having both Democratic and Republican primaries on Tuesday.
"Given that cannabis is a big issue [in Massachusetts], I think it will play into candidate support," said Reiman. "It's more [important in] states where marijuana is being considered, rather than states where it's already generating tax revenue."
Voters are more likely to think about marijuana reform when the issue is being actively debated, explained Reiman. It's unlikely that any of the candidates would affect state-level policies.
"Ultimately it’s the Congress that's in charge of federal [marijuana] policies," said Armentano. "They set the legislative priorities and they're going to have a bigger role to play."
Vermont has been a boon to the pro-cannabis camp lately, with the state Senate approving a measure to legalize adult-use marijuana last Thursday. Vermont was the first state to legalize same-sex marriage through the legislature, and could do the same with cannabis if the measure passes the House. Governor Peter Shumlin has expressed his support of the bill and has promised to sign it if it lands on his desk.
Vermont is having its Democratic primary on Tuesday, a race where Sanders has the most substantial advantage over Clinton.
Like Massachusetts, the current debate on legal weed in Vermont could impact how voters are thinking about candidates. "[Marijuana policy] is something that the public is thinking about," said Reiman. "In a state where marijuana is not part of public discourse, it's just not something on someone's mind."
While there probably aren't that many single-issue marijuana voters in the primaries, marijuana policy plays into how voters broadly perceive candidates. "It's an issue that could be an indicator of how progressive someone is, or how libertarian someone is, how supportive of states rights they are," said Tvert.
Most of the other states that have primary races have some sort of restrictive medical marijuana provision, whether it's Minnesota's no-smoking rules or Georgia's CBD oil-only law. While advocates are chipping away at those stringent policies to expand access, there are strong majorities for legal medical marijuana on the national level. "I think [medical marijuana] states have been ahead of their legislatures for a while now," said Tvert. Even Georgia is considering legalizing and regulating adult-use.
While federal cannabis legalization will be mostly in the hands of Congress, our next president could influence how states will move forward. "It's also possible a new administration would appoint a new attorney general and that appointment would have ramifications," said Armentano.
Just last week, Chris Christie, one of the most anti-pot Republicans, announced his endorsement of Trump. "There was a bit of a shudder through the marijuana community when he endorsed Trump," said Reiman.
But it's not something we should be worrying about just yet. "Starting to guess about who the nominations will be for various positions – it's probably a little too early for that. It's just too hard to say what's going to happen," said Tvert.
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