The Cannabis Vote

Columbus Free Press | November 14, 2013 | by Mary Jane Borden

Politicians should be envious of cannabis. It’s WAY more popular than they are. Its many wins at the ballot box testify to its popularity, and Election Day 2013 served as a case in point.

From Colorado to Michigan, Maine and Miami, voters handed the substance healthy margins that would feel like a mandate to any vote hungry candidate.

Take Colorado, for example. It is well known that the state’s Constitutional Amendment 64 to permit the “personal use and regulation of marijuana” passed by a 55 percent margin in 2012, the same year that President Obama won the White House with just 50.4 percent of the popular vote. Cannabis was on the ballot in Colorado again this year in the form of a tax on the sales made legal last year. This measure claimed an even higher 65 percent of the vote.

Three Michigan cities ran local ballot initiatives to remove penalties for possession of an ounce and guess what? Jackson 61 percent, Lansing 63 percent and Ferndale, a whopping 69 percent of the vote!

Then there’s Portland, Maine, where upon approval by 70 percent of voters, adults may now possess up to 2.5 ounces of Cannabis penalty free.

On the other end of Eastern Seaboard, 64 percent of voters in glamorous Miami Beach passed a non-binding straw poll that called for the legalization of medical cannabis. This affirmation well surpassed the vote count for the city’s mayoral candidate who won by only 50 percent after a recount.

Election results like these don’t occur by happenstance. They exist because of the Cannabis vote. Just as minorities and youth form demographic groups that swing elections, so do Cannabis voters. Like their counterparts in other groups, those who cast their ballots with a Cannabis twist are often passionate single issue voters. "Cannabis voters" are defined as those who, because they consumed this illegal substance in the past year or past month, would be unlikely to vote against their self-interest, in other words for policies that promote the arrest, prosecution and incarceration of marijuana users such as themselves. Because of self-interest, these voters support candidates who take a softer stance on Cannabis issues. With medical cannabis patients likely to consume the substance on a regular basis, "Past Month" use could be equated to "Medical Cannabis use," hence “Medical Cannabis voters.”

How can this be substantiated? With numbers from the U.S. government, of course. Each year, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration publishes the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) that estimates the number of marijuana users. The United States Census counts voters. Both break their estimates down by age ranges to reflect patterns that vary with age. If the percentages of citizens who voted by age were roughly the same as the percentages of marijuana users (citizens according to the NSDUH) who voted by age, then the former percentages can be applied the latter’s estimates of “past year” and “monthly” marijuana users by age to compute the number and percentage of “Cannabis voters.”

Let’s use 2008 as an example - that year 63 percent of Michigan voters approved a constitutional amendment protecting medical marijuana users. The math shows that the “Cannabis vote” in 2008 comprised about 13 million voters, with around 7.8 million making up the “Medical Cannabis vote.” Each equaled respective 9.8 percent and 5.9 percent totals of the 2008 vote. In Ohio with 5.5 million voters, those numbers compute to 9.1 percent for the Cannabis vote and 5.2 percent for the Medical Cannabis vote.

These numbers gain meaning when compared to other demographic groups. Among minorities, 16 million voters in 2008 were Black and comprised 12.3 percent of the total vote. About 9.8 million Hispanics and 3 million Asians cast their ballots respectively at 7.4 percent and 2.6 percent of the 2008 vote. The youth vote, those age 18-24, had a “statistically significant increase in turnout” in 2008 and numbered 12.5 million, 9.5 percent of the total vote.

The bottom line is this: 9.8 percent of the total vote = Cannabis vote, and 5.9 percent = Medical Cannabis vote, versus 12.3 percent of the total for the Black vote, 7.4 percent for the Hispanic vote, 2.6 percent for the Asian vote and 9.5 percent for the youth vote. If these numbers indeed mirror reality, the impact of the Cannabis vote is comparable to that for any minority group. It is not to be ignored. Peril to the politician who does!

Elections are often won on the margins. Wedge issues drive voters to the polls and toss tight elections toward candidates with whom they have an affinity, often self-interest. According to the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan “[V]oting Margins [in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections] become magnified when we consider that minorities comprised a larger part of the voter base in 2008 ... there were almost 1 in 4 voters who were minorities in 2008.” The Center went on to state that “the minority support for Obama was instrumental in his success.”

Circling back to ballot measures, the logic of their popularity and passage is blatantly obvious in light of the Cannabis vote, which flexed its muscles on Election Day 2013. And there may be more amendments to stir the political pot in 2014. If politicians value their popularity particularly in tight election years, they’ll go with a winning team, or at least they won’t work against their own self-interest.