Why Cannabis Policy Could Be a 'Gateway' Issue to Broader Civic Engagement
Cannabis ballot measures get out the vote and show people their vote can make a difference.
Few issues have the sort of cross-sectional support as cannabis legalization in the United States, according to a survey by Pew Research.
An overwhelming 91% of Americans think it should be legal in some capacity — 59% think it should be legal for both recreational and medical purposes, while 32% believe it should be legal for medical use only. Support for the issue cuts across political party, age, race, gender, and education lines, Pew Research found.
Eleven states have legalized cannabis recreationally, and five states have cannabis measures on their ballots this year.
It’s the rare kind of nonpartisan issue that gets people engaged in the political process and, ultimately, motivates them to vote, according to Sam D’Arcangelo, director of the Cannabis Voter Project, an offshoot of HeadCount, the voter engagement organization that has partnered with Global Citizen for the Just Vote campaign.
“One thing we run into at HeadCount all the time is this kind of apathy, this idea that ‘what does it even matter, my vote can’t change anything,’” he said. “And it’s true that, legislatively, this country has been in a kind of standstill, but cannabis policy has moved significantly largely because people have voted for it.
“All of these states that have legalized cannabis did so at the ballot box,” he said. “I believe that cannabis policy can be a gateway issue for getting people excited about the political process.”
That type of cause and effect — people voting and a policy outcome immediately following — could help restore a person’s trust in democracy.
In past election cycles, cannabis ballot measures have significantly boosted voter turnout, which has trickled down to affect other items on the ballot because it changes the makeup of the voting electorate, according to the Brookings Institute. In Colorado, for example, youth voter turnout surged when cannabis was on the ballot in 2012 compared to the previous election cycle, and the outcomes of local races were impacted as a result.
The Cannabis Voter Project doesn't support any specific cannabis policy positions or legislation, nor endorse any candidates or political parties — it simply "informs, registers, and turns out voters who are interested in cannabis policy," according to its website.
D’Arcangelo said that getting out to vote around cannabis legalization can lead to other forms of civic engagement — researching issues, canvassing for a candidate, joining a get out the vote effort, and even directly getting involved in politics.
“We want people to start conversations with their legislators,” he said. “When people send these [cannabis-related] emails out [via a HeadCount template], especially in the case of state lawmakers, you often get responses straight from the lawmakers.
“And in many cases, it’s the first time that people realize who their state rep is,” he added. “It’s a great way to get involved in the political process.”
In the 2020 election, cannabis legalization measures could play a decisive role in local, state, and federal races, potentially changing the texture of the American political landscape in the process.
Cannabis legalization measures are on the ballot in five states this election — Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, South Dakota, and Mississippi.
In all of these states except Mississippi, citizens will get to vote on whether or not cannabis should be legal for recreational, adult use. Mississippi, on the other hand, is voting on a medical cannabis measure.
If the first four states vote to legalize cannabis, then 15 states and roughly one-third of all US citizens will be living in an area where they can legally purchase and consume cannabis, a watershed moment that could influence policy at the federal level, according to D’Arcangelo.
Cannabis legalization is not a standalone issue. It’s inseparable from criminal justice reform because of the ways in which Black and brown and low-income communities have been disproportionately harmed by cannabis criminalization. Today, an estimated 40,000 people are incarcerated over cannabis-related charges. Some people have spent decades in jail for cannabis offenses.
Many advocates argue that any effort to legalize cannabis should include restorative justice elements that expunge criminal records, provide employment and entrepreneurship opportunities to communities historically impacted, and ensure newly raised tax funds go toward community rehabilitation.
Cannabis measures are also closely linked to health care because of the potential therapeutic value it could offer to tens of millions of Americans who live with chronic pain, anxiety and depression, and other health issues.
There’s currently a national legalization bill in the House of Representatives — the MORE Act — that’s scheduled for a vote in November, which could be influenced by the elections in states where the issue is on the ballot.
“You’ll have a third of Americans living in states where it's legal,” he said. “That kind of thing can force Congress to act. There could be an avenue to pass it through [following the election]."
Getting People Out to Vote
The Cannabis Voter Project works to get people out to vote regardless of their stance or beliefs on the issue of cannabis legalization.
By engaging people on the issue, HeadCount is able to get people to register to vote, make a plan to vote, and talk to their friends and family about voting, D’Arcangelo said.
“We’re an organization that wants to turn people into active citizens,” he said. “This issue resonates really strongly with young people who tend to be apathetic about politics.”
Voter registration is HeadCount’s main focus. When there isn't a pandemic, the organization sends volunteers to live music events to engage with and register attendees. Over the years, they’ve teamed up with hundreds of artists who have used their platforms to get people registered to vote.
The Cannabis Voter Project takes a similar approach. It partners with brands in the cannabis space to get their followers registered to vote by sending out emails, texts, and distributing information on how to vote.
This year, it's ramped up its digital outreach efforts because of COVID-19.
“We’re doing peer-to-peer texting in states where cannabis is on the ballot, primarily targeting young voters who are more likely to be interested in the issue,” he said. “We’re informing them about the candidates on the ballot, walking them through the process of voting by mail and voting early, and sending them information.”
D’Arcangelo said that they target two broad groups: high propensity voters — those who are more likely to go out and vote — and low propensity voters.
“For high propensity voters, we let them know about the initiatives, and get them to tell their friends and families to participate in the election,” he said. “For low propensity, it’s a straight get out the vote [message]. We try to use this as a hook to get them to the polls to become a voter. We’re really hoping to reach people who are non-voters and unlikely voters.”
Disclaimer: As a nonpartisan organization, Global Citizen does not support or endorse any specific cannabis policy positions, legislation, candidates, or political parties.