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Will Marijuana Legalization Voters Help Democrats this November?

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Ryan Grim at Huffington Post reports on the notion going round political circles that California's Prop 19 (and, to a lesser extent, medical marijuana initiatives in Arizona and South Dakota, and dispensaries for medical marijuana in Oregon) will be for the Democrats what anti-Gay Marriage Equality amendments were for Republicans -- the turn-out-the-base social wedge issue that helps their candidates on the ballot.

A survey making the rounds among strategists, which has yet to be made public, indicates that pot could be just the enticement many of these voters need: Surge voters, single women under 40 and Hispanics all told America Votes pollsters that if a legalization measure were on the Colorado ballot, they'd be more likely to come out to vote. Forty-five percent of surge voters and 47 percent of single women said they'd be more interested in voting if the question was on the ballot. Most of these were energetic, with 36 and 30 percent, respectively, saying they'd be "much more interested" in coming out to vote. Roughly half said it would make no difference. For Latinos, 32 percent said they'd be "much more interested" in voting and another 12 percent said they'd be somewhat more attracted to the idea of trudging to the polls.

Surge voters said they would support the measure by a margin of 63-35. Young single women would back it 68-31. Latinos, meanwhile, oppose it 52-46, according to the survey. "Whether it can pass or not is another question, but I think it's clear that a marijuana legalization measure has the potential to increase turnout among voting groups that are critical to Democratic success in November," said a Colorado Democratic operative, who, like most strategists employed by campaigns, prefers not to talk about marijuana on the record -- highlighting the difficulty Democrats will have threading the political needle.

Turning out an extra few percent can be the difference between winning and losing in swing states, a reality Karl Rove exploited in 2004 by papering the nation with anti-gay marriage initiatives.

I think the Democrats are in for a surprise. See, Karl Rove and the Republicans really believed in the initiatives they were pushing. They had a frame for it -- "one man one woman" -- that resonated with their voters and the overall worldview espoused by most of their downticket candidates. So when that Religious Right base came out in 2004, energized to vote against dreaded homosexuals and for the continuation of all that was good, true, and Christian in America, they had George W. Bush and a whole slew of Republicans to vote for that echoed that sentiment.

What do Democrats have to offer the cannabis consumer who comes out for a 2010 election? Unlike Rove and the Republicans, the Democrats don't really believe in these initiatives (publicly). Sen. Boxer, Sen. Feinstein (a former mayor of San Francisco, c'mon now!), and former Gov. / current AG Jerry "Moonbeam" Brown all publicly oppose Prop 19 (really, Jerry? You toked with Linda Ronstadt! Please!) Democrats can't even go on the record to discuss this strategy. They haven't yet framed it other than to murmur a bit about tax revenues, which is a lousy frame easily countered with "Well, if taxing crack made the cities money, should we legalize that?" Tax revenues resonate well within Assembly committee hearings, but they make for a ghoulish appeal to the average voter.

There's also the disappointment factor. A lot of cannabis consumers were very excited about supporting Barack Obama for president. He wrote candidly of his youthful marijuana and cocaine use! No more "I didn't inhale" bullshit; we even got an "I inhaled, frequently, that was the point." He ran for Senate saying "The War on Drugs is an utter failure and I think we need to re-think and decriminalize our marijuana laws."

And, honestly, he's a black guy from Chicago and a constitutional law professor, so we figured he's probably got a pretty good read on the realities of marijuana and how devastatingly unjust, ineffective, and harmful its prohibition is. We are the "surge voters" Grim is talking about, those of us "who were driven to the polls in 2008 through a once-in-a-generation mix of shame at the outgoing administration and hope in a new, barrier-breaking candidate."

So we "surged," in the real world and especially online, and got Obama elected. We even got him a massive majority in Congress. We were thrilled when he asked us online what items we'd like to see on the new administration's agenda and multiple times we responded with "legalize marijuana," topping almost every public survey and dominating with 16 of the top 50 questions in the largest survey. So what did we get in response? Something we in marijuana law reform simply call "The Chuckle":

Democrats may still benefit from the cannabiphiles flooding the polls if only due to the "who else ya gonna vote for?" strategy championed by folks like Rahm Emanuel. But how long will it take some younger, Tea Party-friendly Republicans to realize they have a potential windfall of new, young, diverse voters if they steal the low-hanging fruit of marijuana legalization for their own?

Republicans already have the frames of "small government," "personal responsibility," and "states rights" to work within. If marijuana legalization in California passes by a wide margin and sees support from the women, minorities, and young people the GOP desperately needs to rebuild their party, how long before they begin framing the War on Drugs as the "big government," "nanny state," and "federal overreach" that it is? They've got revered conservative figures like William Buckley and Milton Friedman they can quote to bolster their position. They can easily point to the Democratic Congresses of the 1980s that created the mandatory minimums and the last three Democratic presidents who supported decriminalization and inhaled or didn't inhale yet arrests kept increasing (at the greatest rate under Clinton, they'll note).

The GOP isn't quite there yet. Marijuana is still associated with hippies, counter-culture, leftism, atheism, communism, heathenism, and a few other isms the Republicans still rail against. When I was arguing for marijuana legalization back in my home state of Idaho, I used to ask the hippie-hating, pickup-driving, hardest-right Republicans I knew why, if they hated marijuana and hippies so much, did they support hippies making a living without ever paying taxes? "Why is it that you have to clock in at 8am every day," I'd ask, "and 30% of your check is gone before you ever touch it because of taxes, while a hippie gets to sleep til Noon, grow a plant in a closet, never leave the house, and make twice as much as you do, and never pays a cent in taxes? It's not like you see a bunch of hippies opening up brewpubs." If the GOP can use their base's continued engagement in the culture wars of the '60s and '70s by framing legalization as the only logical way to control and punish (through "sin" taxes) the users of cannabis, they could radically revitalize their party.

Just in time for 2012 when a vocally pro-marijuana legalization, anti-prohibition former governor of New Mexico named Gary Johnson will be fighting for the Republican nomination.

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