Trump Claim on Pot Ballot Initiatives ‘Lacks Evidence’ 

By Hilary Corrigan
Aug 18, 2020
(Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

At a Monday event in Wisconsin, President Donald Trump recalled former Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) loss in the 2018 election.

“The next time you run, please don’t put marijuana on the ballot at the same time you’re running,” Trump told him. “You brought out like a million people that nobody ever knew were coming out.”

But those who have long monitored such issues say it’s unlikely that cannabis ballot initiatives help or hurt a political party in an election.

“There is no clear indication” that a cannabis reform ballot initiative helps one party or the other, said Matthew Schweich, deputy director with Marijuana Policy Project.

Schweich noted that Wisconsin did not have a statewide ballot initiative in that 2018 election. There were local referendums on the question of legalization, all of them advisory and nonbinding. Schweich also noted that more than 2.5 million people voted in that year’s election. To say that a million of those voters came out of nowhere is incorrect, he said.

He stressed that a majority of Republicans support legalization and an even larger number of them support legal MED. A Pew Research poll late last year found about two-thirds of Americans support legalization, including 55% of Republicans.

‘How democracy works’

NORML echoed those ideas.

“President Trump’s remarks highlight nothing more than the simple fact that Americans favor marijuana legalization and will turn out to vote at the ballot box in favor of reform if given the opportunity,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said in an email. “That’s simply how democracy works but it appears that Trump is antagonistic of the practice of voting in general.”

This year, pro-legalization organizations want to see REC ballot measures pass in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota; and MED ballot measures pass in South Dakota and Mississippi. A Nebraska MED measure is still awaiting official clearance, but MPP expects it will qualify.

Pepper Petersen, campaign spokesperson for Montana’s REC measure, also doubts that cannabis measures help or hurt any particular party in an election. He called it a “claim that can’t be backed up” by evidence.

“If that were the case, then the Democratic Party would be pouring millions into our campaign,” Petersen said, noting that Montana also has a tight Senate race this year.

Petersen notes the campaign’s leadership includes Republican Dave Lewis, a former state senator who served in the state’s budget office for four governors. Lewis is an active supporter of Republican candidates for both the U.S. Senate and the governor’s seat in this election—and wouldn’t take part in the cannabis campaign if it might hurt those candidates’ chances, Petersen said.

Transcends party?

Petersen also points to the response the campaign gets from Republican officials. They don’t fear voter turnout, he said. Instead they consider legalization inevitable and are wondering about practical approaches toward it—and about the revenue.

“I’d be surprised if they aren’t already making plans to spend this money,” Petersen said of Republican officials. The campaign expects more than $128M by 2025 in sales tax revenue for the state.

Trump’s hypothesis could be best tested in Arizona. A battleground in the presidential election with a closely watched Senate race, Arizona voters could also vote on REC legalization in November.

State authorities have cleared the initiative, though it faces a legal challenge. Opponents unsuccessfully sued to have it removed from the ballot, but the state Supreme Court is slated to hear the case.

But supporters of the measure reject Trump’s claim. Legalization has “transcended party” in Arizona, said Stacy Pearson, spokesperson for Smart and Safe Arizona and a senior vice president at public affairs firm Strategies 360. “This is not a partisan issue.”

She said there are lifelong Republican churchgoers in Arizona who consume cannabis through the state’s MED. She also pointed to Republican voters’ support of a REC attempt in a 2016 election. That number has only grown, she said.

“The president’s assertions are certainly overstated,” Pearson said.

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