If you live in Maine, Massachusetts, Arizona, Nevada, or California, you’re about to see a lot of ads about smoking pot pop up on your TV screen. If you keep the sound off, however, it might be hard to figure out what these spots are actually trying to get you to vote for this November.
A campaign video for Yes on 1 in Maine features pictures of sheriffs and small-business-owner moms, while a new ad for Yes on Prop. 205 in Arizona showcases pictures of very young students, emphasizing that marijuana revenue would be used to support education (although how much it could help is up for debate). These gentle pushes, framing marijuana in a boring and bureaucratic light — most of the recreational marijuana campaigns share the same snooze-worthy name, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol — are clearly targeting our nation’s most dependable voters: old people.
It makes sense. Young people don’t need to be convinced that marijuana should be legalized — a Quinnipiac University poll from June showed that 69 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds said marijuana should be legal. Support crosses party lines, too; a Pew Research poll from last year had 63 percent of young Republicans supporting legalization. (Opposition also crosses party lines. Some of the most prominent detractors to legalization in California and Massachusetts are Democrats, and both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been cautious on the issue — just this week, Chelsea Clinton “misspoke” and said that pot usage could lead to death — leaving the initiatives to fend for themselves.)
Millennials also make up the largest voting bloc in the United States, so you’d think that these pro-legalization groups could just put young voters in the win column and spend the rest of the election pleading to grandmas. But that would require being extra-confident that young people will actually vote in this weird election cycle, an outcome that seems far from certain. And if young people don’t cast ballots, do these initiatives have a chance? Or will 2016 be defined by the fact that older voters’ opinions reigned supreme?
“The mere presence of these initiatives on state ballots will certainly have an impact in energizing young voters,” Mason Tvert at the Marijuana Policy Project — which has led most of the state-level pot reform efforts — predicted to MTV News. “And not necessarily just young voters, but nontraditional voters, people who tend to sit out a lot of elections.” Unfortunately, past precedent doesn’t seem to support that conclusion. There is no proof that putting weed on the ballot increases youth turnout. If these organizers want young people to vote for these measures, they’re going to have to work as hard as everyone else trying to get millennials excited about politics this fall. There are a lot of people to convince too — a recent Gallup survey noted that just 47 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds said they will definitely vote this year. In 2008, 74 percent of young people said they definitely thought they would vote.
“My biggest thing is getting the new voters out,” Carlos Alfaro at Yes for Prop. 205 in Arizona told MTV News. “With college and millennial voters, there’s a very real concern that having these presidential candidates at the top of the ballot might encourage them not to vote.” When asked about young voters feeling apathetic about the presidential race, Jim Borghesani at Yes on 4 in Massachusetts told MTV News that organizers were definitely worried about youth turnout, adding that “Bernie Sanders is campaigning heavily for Hillary Clinton. We’re hoping his efforts will push people to vote too.”
Polling shows that many of these measures appear to have enough support to win at this exact moment (although maybe not in Arizona). That’s not too surprising, given how much state pot policies have changed in the past few years. While federal policy still shuns weed, 21 states, plus D.C., have decriminalized it. Many state legislatures have debated legalization bills this year. If California legalizes marijuana in 2016, recreational pot usage will be allowed on the entire West Coast, plus Alaska. But groups opposing the initiatives — many by emphasizing their worries about teen pot usage — have also raised a lot of money in some states, which could easily be used to flood the airwaves at the last moment. In Florida, conservative mega-donor and casino owner Sheldon Adelson has spent around $6 million on efforts to fight medical marijuana. Organizers in Nevada are worried what will happen if the billionaire decides to spend money to fight recreational pot closer to home. “If he decides to get in the game,” Democrat state Senator Tick Segerblom told us, “it’s going to be significant.”
Segerblom sponsored Question 2 in Nevada, and has been a big voice for marijuana legalization in his state. “I grew up in the ’60s, and it was pretty prevalent then,” he says. “Fifty years later, the millennials are basically reliving the ’60s, from my perspective.” The second strongest strain of pot available at Euphoria Wellness in Las Vegas is called Segerblom Haze, in honor of the legislator’s legalization efforts. Segerblom was warned in advance about the eponymous bud. “I checked with my kids — that was a little bit of a concern,” he says, “and they said, ‘That’s cool, Dad.’”
In California, Proposition 64 has attracted millions of dollars, mostly from legalization supporters. (Marijuana reform tends to inspire lots of people to throw crazy amounts of money around.) Opponents have been focusing on a part of the initiative that says pot purveyors would be able to advertise their goods. The polls show that legalization stands a good chance in the most populous state in the country. Other surveys highlight, however, how few young people are voting there; according to the Public Policy Institute of California, only 53 percent of millennials are registered in the state. Seventy-nine percent of this demographic supports legalization.
Many of the campaigns have been relying on Students for Sensible Drug Policy to do much of their youth outreach. In California, SSDP has 31 chapters that are gearing up to register voters on campus. Frances Fu, a regional outreach coordinator for SSDP, told MTV News the group has been stressing to voters how this issue dovetails with many other things young people care about. “People come to our organization for many reasons,” Fu says. “Some have been arrested. Other students are interested in psychedelic research. Others worried about the heroin epidemic, or the school-to-prison pipeline. Marijuana legalization intersects with all of these issues.” It’s not clear how much SSDP will actually affect the outcome of the election — since school just started, many of the groups have yet to start signing up new voters. Although Maine happens to have same-day registration, other states’ registration deadlines are fast approaching.
The pro-legalization types are also doing stuff on their own to reach out to young voters — although they clearly hope that broader attempts to get out the vote on campuses from other progressive groups will help their cause indirectly. In one of the oldest states in the country, the legalization campaign has a full-time organizer at the University of Maine and is thinking about making a Snapchat filter. The Arizona campaign is focusing on registering college students in Phoenix, and in Massachusetts, forums have been planned at campuses across the state.
Organizers are also willing to leverage frustration over the presidential race to their advantage. “We tell young voters that this measure is something they can be voting for rather than against,” David Boyer, who runs the marijuana legalization campaign in Maine, said to MTV News. “Politicians are always a disappointment — this is something black and white. It’s interesting to vote for something quantifiable.” Segerblom adds, “We don’t care if you vote for Gary Johnson, or Hillary, or even Trump. The reality is that you just have to show up and vote on Question 2.”