How Donald Trump Could Help Legalize Marijuana in Arizona

Surveys of Arizona voters in recent months showed that a measure to legalize marijuana for all adults 21 and older — likely to materialize on this November's ballot — could use some help.

Donald Trump to the rescue?


Now that Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee, supporters of marijuana legalization are forced to contemplate what a Trump presidency could mean for their movement. Trump's statements about legalization have caused some cannabis advocates to view him as a better choice than social conservative Ted Cruz, who dropped out of the race this week.

Whatever Trump's position, simply having his name on the Arizona ballot could be a game changer for the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol citizens' initiative.

The CRMLA, sponsored by the national Marijuana Policy Project and local medical-marijuana dispensaries, aims to end zero-tolerance, felony prohibition in Arizona by making personal amounts of marijuana legal and setting up a limited number of Colorado-style cannabis retail stores.

Trump's presence on the ballot will "inflame the left," says local political consultant Matthew Benson, who served as press secretary under former Republican Governor Jan Brewer. "If Hillary stops taking on water and can just be a generic Democrat running against the most unpopular Republican nominee in our lifetimes, that should benefit efforts to legalize marijuana."

Benson, who doesn't work for either the campaign or its opposition, notes that back in 2010, the percentage of support for the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act in polls ran in the "solid mid-60s" but eroded just before the election to pass by less than 1 percent.

Recent polls show as little as 43 percent to 49 percent support among voters for legalization, with as many as 8 percent still undecided. "It's not where you want to be at this point," Benson says. "If you're on the legalization side, you need something to change the trajectory hugely for you. Trump at least shakes things up."

Potentially, Trump "turns out Democratic voters and depresses Republican turnout significantly," Benson goes on. At the same time, where Trump increases voter turnout, he might bring a "different kind of Republican" to the polls who's more likely to vote "yes" on legalization.

For months, much has been made by the GOP and political pundits of the dreaded "down-ballot" theory, which predicts that Republican candidates are likely to be negatively affected by Trump. Some lifelong Republicans are disavowing their party because of Trump and may cast votes against candidates who link to him. Some disgusted Republicans may sit out this election.

Turnout is always the big question, and that may be particularly true for the Arizona legalization measure, says Democratic strategist Rodd McLeod, who has helped conduct successful campaigns for current and former members of Congress, including Kirsten Sinema, Gabrielle Giffords, and Ron Barber. (Like Benson, he doesn't work for people involved with either side of the legalization question.)

"You're going to see depressed turnout among some of the Republicans who have strong concerns about the tone the president should set for leadership," McLeod predicts.

Back in the 1990s, Bill Clinton was excoriated by conservative pundits for merely answering the famous question on MTV, "Boxers or Briefs?"

"Trump is actually talking about what's inside his briefs," McLeod says, adding that the presumptive Republican nominee's wild side is a big turnoff for Mormon voters.

In Utah's March caucuses, Trump experienced one of the biggest political failures of his campaign, coming in well behind Cruz and John Kasich. Sixteen percent of Utahn voters, most of whom are Republican, said they'd skip the election if the presidential lineup turned out to be Clinton vs. Trump, according to an April poll by the Deseret News. Many Republicans in Arizona are Mormon, so maybe a key percentage of them will stay home for November's general election.

Then again, Trump crushed his competition in Arizona's Presidential Preference Election. People stood in lines for hours to vote for him.

As in typical Arizona elections, the Republican candidate will be helped by a smaller turnout of voters under 30, McLeod says. Recent polls on the legalization measure show a clear trend of high support for legalized marijuana by younger voters and greater support for pot prohibition the greater the age of voters, he says.

"It behooves the folks [in the legalization campaign] to get out these younger voters," McLeod says.

There could be momentum for such a turnout of young voters this year, he notes, adding that a recent poll showed millennials' support of Trump at only 17 percent.

Clinton's well-oiled political machine is trying to capture the youth vote, and doing a good job of it when compared to Trump. Bernie Sanders has energized a young base of voters — when he drops out of the race, the question of how many of those voters switch to Clinton or bother to vote at all will depend both on Clinton herself and how Sanders helps her.

Barrett Marson, a spokesman for CRMLA, says recent Arizona polls haven't captured young voters as well as older, and therefore can't be trusted. A poll last month commissioned by an anti-legalization group focused on voters who had cast ballots in three of the last four elections; Marson says turnout by young voters is expected to be higher this year than in those voting cycles.

"I believe we're there," he says of the public's support. "We have good poll numbers, if you could come up with a sample of people who actually vote."

The campaign announced last month that it has collected 200,000 signatures, more than the 150,000 needed to make November's ballot. The group expects to turn in 225,000 before the July 7 due-date to ensure they have enough valid signatures of registered voters.

This week, the CRMLA launched a series of Mother's Day-related billboards throughout the state that ask the question, "Have you talked to your parents about marijuana?" The goal is to change the minds of older voters who may vote against legalization because of irrational fears about cannabis.

Looking beyond the election, it's not entirely clear whether Trump would help or hurt the overall cannabis movement if he were to win in November. The Marijuana Policy Project gives him a C+ grade on its candidate report card. Clinton receives a B, while Bernie Sanders gets an A.

Trump has criticized recreational-marijuana legalization, claiming it has hurt Colorado, but he also said in October that "we should leave it up to the states." Earlier last year he said he supports medical marijuana "100 percent." And way back in 1990, he declared that the War on Drugs was a failure and said the only way to win it was to legalize all drugs.

Neither Clinton nor Trump is "likely to create significant problems for marijuana policy reform efforts and that both could potentially bring about some improvements to current federal marijuana policies," says MPP spokesman Mason Tvert. " But it is difficult to draw conclusions at this point. For example, we do not know who they would appoint to head up the Justice Department, the ONDCP [Office of National Drug Control Policy], and the DEA, and what level of influence those individuals would have with regard to to marijuana policy."

One possibility that might make cannabis consumers shudder: Trump could appoint Chris Christie, a strong advocate for continued cannabis prohibition, as U.S. Attorney General. Christie would have to follow Trump's lead and probably wouldn't set policy himself, Tvert says. But if Christie has a freer rein, "that would be significantly problematic."
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.