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Marijuana Ballot Measures Could Drive Democratic Voters, But Candidates Aren’t Running On It

Four states will vote on ballot initiatives to decriminalize pot

A man holds a marijuana joint in his clenched fit during the marijuana protest in front of the U.S. Capitol last year. Some conservative politicians are warming up to the idea of marijuana legalization. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A man holds a marijuana joint in his clenched fit during the marijuana protest in front of the U.S. Capitol last year. Some conservative politicians are warming up to the idea of marijuana legalization. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Attorney General Jeff Sessionsmemo in January urging state officials to enforce federal marijuana laws has not stalled momentum toward decriminalization across the country. Four states will vote on pot proposals in November. 

For years, the Democratic Party has hoped marijuana ballot initiatives will motivate their voters to turn out. The theory is far from settled political science, but anecdotal evidence this cycle looks optimistic for embattled Democrats, even as they offer only meek support for the initiatives on the campaign trail.

One state to watch in particular: North Dakota. Voters in North Dakota will weigh recreational use, where Democrats support legalization at a higher rate than Republicans do, according to the Brookings Institute.

A boost in youth turnout could prove crucial to incumbent Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who faces a neck-and-neck re-election challenge against Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer in a race Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates Tilts Republican.

Voters will weigh whether to allow recreational marijuana use and retail sales, and whether to expunge and seal the criminal records of adjudicated defendants convicted of any marijuana-related crime, according to the Bismark Tribune.

Beyond that, the measure includes few details, imposing no limit on possession.

“This [measure] is basically a referendum,” Dave Owen, chairman of the North Dakota Marijuana Legalization Initiative, told the paper. “Do you want recreational marijuana? Yes or no.”

And if Morton County is typical, Measure 3 could be mobilizing voters. Morton, one of the most populous counties in North Dakota, has seen a spike in applications for absentee ballots, according to another Bismark Tribune report.

“Staff members who have been here longer than me don’t remember receiving this many, this early,” Morton County Auditor Dawn Rhone told the paper in September, attributing the energy to the Senate race and Measure 3.

But Heitkamp has largely tiptoed on the issue on the campaign trail, as Marijuana Moment, an online magazine in favor of legalization, has reported.

Heitkamp tweeted in February that U.S. Department of Justice “shouldn’t be getting in the way” of state decriminalization efforts, but offered only tacit support for Measure 3 in an interview with a Bismark television station in August, saying she shares law enforcement’s concerns.

More recently, Heitkamp’s office would not confirm her position to a West Fargo Pioneer opinion writer.

In Michigan, Proposal 1 would allow for retail sales of marijuana for recreational use and add a new 10 percent tax to the state’s existing 6 percent sales tax. That’s low compared to other states where pot is commercialized.

The ballot initiative would legalize possession of up to 2.5 ounces of pot, and safety storing four times that amount, according to the Detroit Free Press. It would also legalize growing up to 12 pot plants in the home. 

As in North Dakota, anecdotal evidence suggests voters could be animated by the issue in Michigan, where 61 percent of voters support legalization for recreational use, according to a Michigan State University survey. But few Democrats in competitive races there have capitalized on the issue.

For example, Republican Rep. Mike Bishop faces a challenge from former Obama administration official Elissa Slotkin in a race Inside Elections rates a Toss-up. But Slotkin has stopped short of endorsing recreational marijuana outright, instead saying that “voters should have their voices heard” and expressing support for medical marijuana.  

Missouri and Utah will also take up ballot initiative on decriminalizing marijuana, but only for patients with certain medical conditions and a prescription. Medical marijuana attracts a greater degree of support from Republicans, Brookings said, so any electoral impact in those states would be more muted.

Watch: Gardner Rails Against Sessions’ Marijuana Action as States’ Rights Issue

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