WASHINGTON -- Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's proposal this month to loosen restrictions on marijuana and spur more research into the drug’s medicinal benefits wasn't especially surprising or daring, given 58 percent of Americans support legalizing it. But it begs the question of whether voters take into account a candidate’s stance on marijuana before heading to the polls.
Marijuana is classified as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act, alongside heroin, LSD and ecstasy. That means the federal government considers it a drug with “no currently accepted medical use” and “a high potential for abuse.” On Nov. 7, Clinton said marijuana should be downgraded to Schedule II, the category under which Schedule II substances including cocaine, methamphetamine, oxycodone, Adderall are listed, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, are still considered “dangerous.”
Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical pot, while recreational marijuana is legal in four states, plus D.C. Clinton has said more research needs to be done to determine how best to help those who use marijuana for medicinal purposes.
"Because it's considered what's called a Schedule I drug and you can't even do research in it," she said. "If we're going to have a lot of states setting up marijuana dispensaries so that people who have some kind of medical need are getting marijuana, we need know what's the quality of it, how much should you take, what should you avoid if you're taking other medications."
Clinton has also embraced the criminal justice aspect to the issue, saying "We have got to stop imprisoning people who use marijuana.”
A new HuffPost/YouGov poll finds that most Americans share Clinton's stance on marijuana research stance on research -- three quarters of Americans, including 81 percent of Democrats, say they'd support the federal government conducting research about medical uses for marijuana.
Just 4 percent of Americans think that marijuana should be regulated more strictly than Schedule II drugs. A 59 percent majority that includes 65 percent of Democrats thinks it should be less restricted than those drugs. That’s the stance taken by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Clinton’s chief rival for the nomination, who introduced a bill Nov. 4 to strike marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act altogether. Sanders’ bill would allow states to decide whether they want to legalize marijuana for recreational or medical use without any federal intervention. (Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who trails Clinton and Sanders in the polls, called for marijuana to be downgraded from Schedule I to Schedule II in September.)
Democrats are nearly four times more likely to say they'd prefer a candidate who supports fewer marijuana restrictions to one who supports more regulation.
The issue, however, isn't at the top of most people's minds as they weigh their choices in next year's election. Just 14 percent of Democrats, and 15 percent of Americans overall, say that marijuana legalization will be a very important issue in their vote for president next year. For comparison, 52 percent of Americans in an earlier poll said their personal finances would be a very important factor.
Even younger Americans, for whom the issue might be expected to hold special appeal, aren't especially interested. Those under 30 aren't any more likely than their older compatriots to say that they'd prefer a pro-legalization candidate, or to say marijuana will be a very important factor in their vote.
One group does consider the topic a little more urgent: the 14 percent of Americans who say they've used marijuana in the past year. Among that group, 41 percent of Americans say that the issue is very important, with 60 percent saying they'd be more inclined to vote for a candidate who promised to ease restrictions.
Even though marijuana doesn’t appear to be a major voting issue, the topic may continue to arise in Democratic primary debates because it marks a significant policy difference between the candidates. Moreover, it intersects with criminal justice reform, a subject that's led Black Lives Matter activists to push Sanders and Clinton to describe how they’d address mass incarceration, race-based discrimination and police brutality. Though whites and blacks use marijuana at similar rates, a report from the American Civil Liberties Union found that blacks are 3.7 times more likely than whites to be arrested for possession. This formed the basis for Sanders to argue that Clinton’s proposal doesn’t go far enough to protect people of color from race-based disparities in marijuana arrests.
“I am glad to see Secretary Clinton is beginning to address an issue that my legislation addressed, but her approach ignored the major issue,” Sanders said in a statement. “If we are serious about criminal justice reform and preventing many thousands of lives from being impacted because of criminal convictions for marijuana possession, we must remove marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act and allow states the right to go forward, if they choose, to legalize marijuana without federal legal impediments.”
Marijuana advocates argue that Clinton's proposal is mostly symbolic because downgrading marijuana to Schedule II won't prohibit the Drug Enforcement Agency from intervening in states that have legalized marijuana for medicinal use.
The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted Nov. 13-15 among U.S. adults, using a sample selected from YouGov's opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population.
The Huffington Post has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov's nationally representative opinion polling. Data from all HuffPost/YouGov polls can be found here. More details on the polls' methodology are available here.
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