Marijuana move could help Biden in key voter group

May 10, 2024

The Biden administration’s move to loosen federal regulations on marijuana could help the president make much-needed headway among younger voters, a group that was crucial to his 2020 win but is showing waning enthusiasm for his reelection bid.

The Drug Enforcement Administration’s announcement last month that it will move forward with taking marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III substance represents the most substantial federal action on the drug since it was first scheduled in 1970.  

While still not a complete decriminalization, the change, once finalized, would make marijuana use and possession a less serious crime at the federal level. According to Democratic pollster and strategist Celinda Lake, this can be coupled with a criminal justice message to woo young voters.  

“I think it needs to be linked to the criminal justice reform that the President, the Vice President already have been very active on. And I think it’s a very, very good part of a package of talking to young people about abortion, about threats to democracy, about student loans,” said Lake. 

The move has been welcomed by marijuana advocates, but also criticized for falling short of their demands for the complete decriminalization of the drug, which Biden backed in his 2020 campaign. 

“There’s just limits in jurisdiction here and that’s kind of the problem,” Lake said. “That’s why I think linking it with criminal justice reform is a really, really strong combination.” 

Among voters younger than 30, President Biden beat former President Trump by 24 percentage points in 2020, according to Pew Research. The Harvard Youth Poll in March found that Biden’s lead over Trump among younger people was 8 points. Among likely voters, this metric goes up to 18 points. 

Rudy Garrett, vice president of capacity building for the advocacy group Alliance for Youth Action (AYA), acknowledged Biden is “worse off among a variety of young demographics” compared to his first matchup with Trump.

“He’s got a lot of work to make up and I do believe that it’s like the dichotomy against the lesser of two evils, Biden versus Trump,” Garrett said. “So, I definitely see a clear need to reach out to voters sooner and to pay very close attention to the issues that they express in each state because young people’s experiences across the country are very diverse.” 

The majority of the country supports legalizing marijuana. A March survey from Pew found that 89 percent of adults are in favor of legalizing marijuana to some degree, and this metric is highest among adults younger than 30, with 93 percent in favor of legalizing marijuana, either for recreational or medicinal use. 

A Schedule III designation will mean that marijuana is still not decriminalized, and access to medical marijuana is unlikely to expand under the change. Marijuana policy groups have not shied away from expressing their disappointment. 

“Rescheduling marijuana is not a policy solution for federal marijuana criminalization or its harms, and it won’t address the disproportionate impact that it has had on Black and Brown communities,” said Cat Packer, director of drug markets and legal regulation at the Drug Policy Alliance, soon after news of the DEA’s decision broke. 

Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, noted that conflicts between state and federal law will persist even after the new rule is finalized. 

“The goal of any federal cannabis policy reform ought to be to address the existing, untenable divide between federal marijuana policy and the cannabis laws of the majority of US states,” he said.

But youth voting advocates say it’s still a win for voters who care about the issue. 

“I think the case that the administration can make [is] they’re making progress on issues that young people care about and working to decriminalize substances,” Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, president of the NextGen America advocacy nonprofit, told The Hill. 

Tzintzún Ramirez said the Biden-Harris campaign can add rescheduling to the list of campaign promises the administration has acted on, including student debt cancellation and climate change commitments. 

Biden announced last month he was canceling student debt for more than 277,000 borrowers, while the administration and environmental groups have touted the Inflation Reduction Act as the largest investment ever in combating climate change. 

But like the recent action on marijuana, critics have argued he hasn’t gone far enough in these areas either, particularly when it comes to reaching young voters. 

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) told Politico earlier this year that Biden’s actions on combating climate change likely won’t satisfy young voters due to “a whole host of other pro-fossil decisions” he has also made. 

And Biden’s signature student-loan forgiveness program was struck down by the Supreme Court last year, forcing him to make more incremental moves. 

Garrett from AYA advised that if Biden wants to secure more of the youth vote, he needs to present more concrete plans in the coming months — and focus messaging on swing states with the most young voters up for grabs. 

“Some of the typical swing states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida are the spaces where we’re seeing young people looking at third party options. So I think that there is a greater opportunity to engage in those states,” she said. 

“And continuing to work to address young people’s issues and having a clear laid out plan on what that looks like could build more confidence over time, versus just kind of hoping that he wins a second term and then setting priorities after that.”