Cannabis was a clear winner on election night 2020, with four states passing adult-use legalization measures and two approving medical use.
What was interesting though is the green wave splashing across traditionally “red states.” Four of the states passing cannabis legalization measures — Arizona, Montana, Mississippi and South Dakota — predominantly vote for Republicans in statewide races — the party of “just say no.”
In 2021 and beyond, red states will play a critical role in shaping the general narrative around cannabis legalization.
Just because Democrats now control the executive branch and both houses of Congress doesn’t mean they are going to, for example, get the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act pushed through right away. The party’s progressive base will push for full legalization with a focus on social equity. By going further to the left with full legalization they may alienate moderate members of their own party making it difficult to secure enough votes.
Evolving attitudes on cannabis legalization
When it comes to cannabis legalization, many Republican politicians and conservative voters struggle to break from those historically conservative values. As such, cannabis legalization
pits traditional GOP values of limited government, freedom and personal responsibility against those aforementioned family and religious values.
But recent elections prove cannabis is no longer a partisan issue.
While some Republican candidates and elected officials continue to express concerns over legalization, this is largely because they feel their base is not aligned on the issue. But attitudes are evolving and more conservative voters are willing to embrace legalization. In fact, the majority of U.S. voters — in both parties — support federal legalization, as 66% of all Americans believe that marijuana should be legalized. One-third of states have already legalized recreational use.
So, while some Republicans fear that if they get on board with legalization, they’ll put themselves at odds with their caucus, the facts don’t support that point of view. Not only are conservative voters and politicians becoming less afraid to support measures aimed at legalization, but they’re also finding that there is political power in supporting cannabis legalization.
Cannabis and Connecting with Younger Voters
Cannabis is a new issue for Republican politicians to embrace. What they’ll find is less pushback from their conservative constituent base. Why? Because the conservative base is unlikely to turn their backs on a candidate who champions freedom, individual liberty and state’s rights by supporting legalization measures. That holds true even if they feel cannabis legalization flies in the face of family and religious values. Look no further than Oklahoma, where more than 360,000 residents — nearly 10 percent of the state’s population — have acquired medical marijauana cards. Sales have surpassed $1 billion with more than 9,000 licensed marijuana businesses. As has been reported, “One of the reddest states became the nation’s hottest weed market.”
Take Florida congressman Matt Gaetz, a close ally of former president Donald Trump, as an example. Despite consistently supporting cannabis reform and arguing that traditional GOP talking points against legalizing marijuana are increasingly unpopular, Gaetz won his bid for re-election in November with nearly 65% of the vote. And in December, he was one of just five Republican lawmakers to vote in favor of a marijuana descheduling bill.
For years, the Republican Party has struggled to connect with younger audiences, but as the GOP looks to “rebrand” in the wake of the 2020 elections, cannabis presents an opportunity to do so. Cannabis legalization is popular with younger generations: Among 18- to 29-year-olds, 88% want cannabis legalized, while 71% of those aged 30-49 are in favor of the policy change. And candidates who recognize these facts are more likely to appeal to younger voters — regardless of which side of the aisle they operate on.
Red States’ Role Moving Forward: Dictating the Agenda
Unless they abolish the filibuster, with the current 50-50 Senate split, Democratic leaders will likely need at least 10 Republican senators to pass legalization. In short, Dems don’t have a choice — they have to work with their Republican counterparts to get anything accomplished.
While Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has pledged to bring the issue of cannabis legalization to the Senate floor if given the power to do so, he’ll need help from Senate Republicans to get any type of cannabis legislation done, whether that’s the Secure And Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, the MORE Act or any new legislation. In that sense, red-state Republicans have leverage because even if they only support modest reforms, their votes are needed.
Meanwhile, the pressure is on to bring cannabis banking reform. States like Arizona, Montana, Mississippi and South Dakota will only add to this conversation. No matter where a politician or voter lands on marijuana legalization, if their state has legalized, businesses need to be able to bank the money. Republicans and Democrat moderates will focus on this, pushing aside sweeping legalization efforts in lieu of a more measured approach in banking reform.
In some ways, red states actually hold more sway than when they were in the majority because the cannabis conversation will find its way to the floor. Now, Republicans can control what goes into any cannabis bill because they can hold out their votes if they don’t like how the bill looks or it isn’t aligned with their agenda. In the end, red states and Republican leaders will essentially dictate the cannabis agenda in the not-too-distant future.
Nico Pento is VP external affairs at Terrapin Care Station.
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