While Democrats are watching turnout levels in California to gauge the ability of marijuana ballot initiatives to turn out young voters, organizers to the north point to a second case study, which concludes that such a referendum would dramatically bolster interest in voting.
Backers of an Oregon measure to regulate the buying and selling of medical marijuana commissioned a poll to determine the effect of the question on young, progressive voters inclined to sit out the election. Pollsters quizzed 400 Oregonians who described themselves as Democrats or independents and rated their interest in the midterm election between one and five on a scale to ten. Half of the voters were given information about Measure 74 and the other half were told about the race for governor, currently a dead heat between Democrat John Kitzhaber and Republican Chris Dudley.
Voters told about the pot initiative were more than twice as likely to increase their interest voting -- which, in Oregon, is done by mail.
President Obama will visit Oregon on Wednesday to try to rally young voters. At least two Oregon House races remain competitive, with freshman Democrat Kurt Schrader and long-serving progressive Peter DeFazio fending off challengers.
Unlikely voters who were told about the pot initiative increased their interest in vote by an average of 3.5 points on the ten-point scale. By a margin of 62 to 21, they overwhelmingly support the measure and at a rate of 50 to 23, they prefer the Democratic candidate for governor. Both candidates, however, have spoken against the pot measure.
Medical marijuana is currently legal in Oregon, but voters rejected a 2004 measure that would have expanded the program to legalize dispensaries. The Yes on 74 campaign's war chest is filled with little more than seeds and stems, but the organization hopes that Democrats and organized labor will recognize the political wisdom of touting Measure 74 and offer the campaign some in-kind assistance.
Motivating young people to engage in politics, especially in an off-year, midterm election, is no simple matter. But the Oregon survey reflects what political operatives have found in California, Colorado and Washington state.
Young, inspired voters were a key constituency that elected Obama in 2008, and their turnout in 2012 -- when a number of swing states are considering marijuana initiatives -- could determine control of the White House and Congress.
Voters fired up by pot are already working to drive California turnout for November.
Activists from Just Say Now have made nearly 6,000 calls in the last week, organizers say, using an online tool to turn out voters supportive of Proposition 19, which would legalize marijuana. Just Say Now is coordinating with the Women's Marijuana Movement, which is also phone-banking on behalf of Prop 19, targeting women, who tend to vote Democratic.
Hundreds of mothers have signed a letter endorsing Prop 19, arguing controlling and taxing marijuana usage will make their communities safer for children. A small group of moms released the letter Tuesday and discussed their support for the measure.
"What we're doing with the policies that are in place now is hampering the kind of conversations we need to be able to have with our children," said Hanna Dershowitz, a lawyer and mother of two. "A reasonable conversation," she said, can only take place "in the context of controlled regulated marijuana."
Gretchen Burns-Bergman, a mother of two and Executive Director of Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing, said she's all too familiar with the problems of pot prohibition and wonders how many other lives have been devastated by the policy.
"I know the damage of marijuana prohibition firsthand," Burns-Bergman said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday. "My son was arrested in 1990 for marijuana possession, which began a decade-long saga, a tremendous emotional saga for our family, a wasting of potential, and a tremendous tax burden to the state to incarcerate him."
Burns-Bergman said after his first arrest at age 20, her son was in an out of prison for 11 years, learning to inject heroin while behind bars. "Taking somebody who is a nonviolent pot smoker and introducing him to this kind of a system is terribly damaging," she said.
Lucia Graves contributed reporting
Ryan Grim is the author of This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America