Biden, at risk with young voters, is racing to shift marijuana policy

Noah Bierman | Los Angeles Times (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Vice President Kamala Harris looked up from prepared remarks in the White House’s ornate Roosevelt Room this month to make sure the reporters in the room could hear her clearly: “Nobody should have to go to jail for smoking weed.”

Harris’ “marijuana reform roundtable” was a striking reminder of how the politics have shifted for a onetime prosecutor raised in the “Just Say No” era of zero-tolerance drug enforcement. As President Biden seeks badly needed support from young people, his administration is banking on cannabis policy as a potential draw.

Biden made similar comments to Harris’ in this month’s State of the Union address — though the 81-year-old president used the term “marijuana” instead of “weed.” The administration is highlighting its decision to grant clemency for pot possession as it races to have cannabis reclassified under the Controlled Substances Act before Biden faces voters in November.

“What’s good about this issue is it’s clean and it’s clear and it cuts through,” said Celinda Lake, one of Biden’s 2020 pollsters who also works for the Coalition for Cannabis Scheduling Reform, an industry group, along with Democratic organizations supporting Biden’s reelection. “And it’s hard to get voters’ attention in this cynical environment.”

The challenge is significant. Biden is viewed favorably by only 31% of people ages 18 through 29, much worse than he fares with other age groups, according to a recent Economist/YouGov poll. Though he leads former President Trump by 21 percentage points in that age group, he needs a high turnout to repeat his 2020 formula. Biden’s age probably has played a role in alienating a group that is both essential for Democrats and historically harder to galvanize than older voters, who more consistently show up at the polls.

What’s more, the biggest step Biden is taking is incremental and not in his full control. The president wants regulators to move marijuana from a Schedule I classification under the Controlled Substances Act — the most restrictive category of drugs that also includes heroin — to Schedule III, a still highly regulated group of drugs that includes anabolic steroids.

That decision is now under review by the Drug Enforcement Administration, which has historically resisted looser drug laws and usually taken many years to review such rule changes within the law, which has been in effect since 1971.

Even if the DEA agrees, it will not mean marijuana is legal at the national level, something that frustrates some cannabis advocates.

“In the year 2024, it’s fair to expect more from a Democratic president,” said Matthew Schweich, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit trying to loosen laws at the local, state and federal levels.

Schweich said he worries about Trump returning to office but believes Biden has done the “absolute bare minimum,” missing a political opportunity to push for legalization in Congress and to advocate for the complete removal of marijuana from the controlled substances list, which Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) and 11 other Democratic senators urged in a January letter to the DEA.

Trump, whose administration threatened federal enforcement against localities and states that had legalized marijuana, is unlikely to attract support from legalization advocates.

Polling that Lake has done for the industry shows even the incremental step Biden is seeking could boost his approval by as much as 9 percentage points with younger voters in battleground states. But it’s hardly certain how that would play out.

A campaign aide, who would speak only on condition of anonymity, said marijuana policy is one of a number of issues the campaign believes will motivate young people — important but not as prominent as top-tier concerns including college affordability, reproductive rights, the economy, climate and healthcare.

The campaign cautions against treating young people as a monolith, noting that they care about a variety of issues and tend to see connections between them. Democrats, through a variety of methods including social media influencers and a newly launched campus outreach program, are trying to make the broader case to young people that Biden is fighting for equity and change while Trump is looking backward.

They note that young voters proved critical not only in Biden’s 2020 election but also in the 2022 midterm elections, when concerns over democracy and abortion rights helped the party perform better than expected.