Opinion: The Biden campaign needs to pivot to marijuana

Photo/Maddie McGarvey/The New York Times / A sign for “Yes on 2,” a measure that would legalize marijuana for recreational use, is seen in Columbus, Ohio, on Election Day, Nov. 7, 2023.
Photo/Maddie McGarvey/The New York Times / A sign for “Yes on 2,” a measure that would legalize marijuana for recreational use, is seen in Columbus, Ohio, on Election Day, Nov. 7, 2023.

As President Joe Biden looks to boost his re-election campaign and lousy poll numbers, there's one policy position that is popular with voters, could help unite Democrats and would leave Republicans scrambling to respond. It's time he come out in support of legalizing recreational use of marijuana.

There's even a ready-made playbook for rolling out the new position. In 2012, then-Vice President Biden provided the initial public push that helped President Barack Obama off the fence on the issue of marriage equality — whose views changed and evolved over two decades, like much of America.

Now, it's Biden stuck straddling the middle when his party and public opinion have already decided the issue. According to the latest Gallup poll earlier this month, 70% of Americans think the use of marijuana should be legal. At the same time, 24 states have moved forward on their own and legalized recreational use, the latest being Ohio where voters recently approved a ballot measure. According to Politico, more than half the country's adult population lives somewhere weed is legal so it seems clear that this is an issue Democrats could embrace with little worry of a backlash.

What's more, Vice President Kamala Harris could take the first step — much as Biden did for Obama on marriage equality.

For a long time, it made sense for Biden to lag behind public opinion on this issue, even if it promised short-term positive publicity. Presidents polarize. Had Biden run on legalization in 2020, or moved strongly toward it early in his presidency, he would have risked hardening opposition among Republicans. It also would have hurt the prospects for change and canceled out any public opinion advantages. It made more sense for him to oppose legalization as a candidate in 2020, and have taken only modest steps in that direction as president.

Moreover, it's an issue that unites Democrats. The Gallup survey found a whopping 87% of all Democrats support legalization, while Republicans are split with 55% supporting legalization and 45% opposed. No single policy position will decide an election, but on the margins taking the popular side of a 70/30 issue that splits the other party is certainly a net plus with voters. And a lot of elections are decided on the margins.

Meanwhile, anything that raises the salience of legalization creates tension among Republicans. Organized groups within the party still oppose marijuana, but the issue is popular with many GOP voters. It's the kind of situation Republican politicians would rather not have to talk about. But if the president is talking about a policy area, it's a lot harder for politicians from either party to duck it.

Having Harris make the first step makes sense for multiple reasons. As both a former prosecutor and a criminal justice reformer, her own record on marijuana is complicated, but she's supported legalization in the past. For her to take a strong step now, perhaps just by saying what she thinks Biden should do, could help solidify her position as a reformer. If Biden then follows her lead, it would demonstrate her real influence within the administration — something all vice presidents try to do. As for Biden, those who care about the issue will only care where he ends up, not how he got there.

We can't know exactly how many votes a strong pro-legalization position would net for Democrats in 2024. But adopting a popular position that unites the party and divides Republicans can only help.

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