Why Hillary Clinton can't just ignore marijuana in 2016

She is going to have to talk about the legalization movement, whether she likes it or not

Flag with marijuana symbols
(Image credit: DAVID MCNEW/AFP/Getty Images)

On Thursday, Gallup released a poll showing that 44 percent of Americans have said they've tried marijuana, the largest number the survey has ever recorded. This isn't too far off from what other polls have found (this Pew Research Center poll pegged the number at 49 percent), and given that people are being asked to admit to behavior that is illegal in most places, the true number is almost certainly higher. So we're past the point where most American adults have tried pot, which helps explain why support for legalization has also become a majority position. In 2016, there will be multiple legalization initiatives on state ballots, which could help drive turnout for Democrats and make the election of Hillary Clinton more likely — even if she's not a legalization supporter herself.

You can think about this as a tipping point, but it was going to happen eventually. Chances are that your grandmother never smoked pot simply because it wasn't part of her culture in her youth, so she never had the opportunity. As older generations die off, they're replaced by those who have more direct experience with it. While only 22 percent of those over 65 in Gallup's data report having tried marijuana, 49 percent of those between 50 and 64 have, as have 50 percent of those between 30 and 49. Only 37 percent of those between 18 and 29 have tried it, presumably because it's the summer and many of the 18-year-olds haven't gotten to college yet (kidding — sort of).

At the very least, people who smoked pot at some point probably realize that it didn't immediately send them off to score some heroin, so they're likely to be more open to the idea of legalization than those for whom it's utterly foreign. And it's millennials who are most strongly in favor of loosening the laws (68 percent of them in the Pew poll).

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Those in the legalization movement are counting on those young people turning out in a presidential election year to push initiatives like the ones that legalized cannabis in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon. While organizers are still plotting strategy and preparing petitions in many states, at the moment it looks like there could be legalization initiatives on the ballot in 2016 in Arizona, Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada, Missouri — and the big prize, California. California already has a medical marijuana system, which pretty much everyone agrees is a farce (let's just say it isn't hard to find a doctor who'll prescribe pot for your earlobe pain or fear of squirrels), and it would be a shock if voters there don't approve a legalized system.

Both Democrats and marijuana advocates are hoping there will be a turnout synergy at work: The initiative will bring out young people who are more likely to vote Democratic after they check the box for cannabis, and the higher Democratic turnout that a presidential year always produces will make the marijuana initiative more likely to prevail. That would help Democrats running for any office, and in a couple of those states it could provide a boost to Hillary Clinton, if she's the nominee.

Unlike her husband, who tried pot but famously didn't inhale, Clinton's answer to the personal experience question is no — while I'm sure there was quite a bit around Wellesley by the time she graduated in 1969, the straight-laced Hillary Rodham did not partake, and I doubt anyone disbelieves her. But on the policy issue, she has been far less clear. Her position is that medicinal marijuana should be available for people in "extreme medical conditions." As for recreational availability, she has said that we should wait to see how things go in the states that have legalized it and then make a judgment.

Which is a reasonable position to take. That said, this issue will undoubtedly come up in the campaign, since there are questions about federal policy even if all the legalization happens at the state level, and she's going to be pressed to get more specific. Should marijuana still be classified by the federal government as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, meaning it's treated the same way as cocaine or heroin? Should VA doctors be allowed to prescribe it to veterans? On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed an amendment prohibiting the Treasury Department from punishing banks that do business with marijuana establishments in states where they're operating legally (the lack of access to bank services has been a huge problem for marijuana-related businesses). Is that something Clinton supports? What kind of instructions would she give to the Justice Department about how it operates in states where marijuana has been legalized?

Chances are that some if not all of the legalization initiatives on the ballot next year will pass, and others will be coming in future elections. That means more and more Americans will be living in states where marijuana use is legal by state law, but still illegal under federal law. So these questions of how the federal government approaches that conflict will become more acute. It's safe to say that the next Republican administration will maintain the status quo, and even reverse the tentative moves the Obama administration has made to loosen some restrictions. But Clinton is going to have to say how she'd approach the issue.

And with legalization becoming more popular, particularly in her party, don't be surprised if Clinton begins a slow evolution in a more liberal direction on this issue, as she has on many others.

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