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

A demonstrator waves a flag with marijuana leaves on it during a protest outside of the White House.
A Biden campaign aide said marijuana policy is one of a number of issues the campaign believes will motivate young people.
(Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press)

Vice President Kamala Harris looked up from prepared remarks in the White House’s ornate Roosevelt Room this month to make sure the reporters there 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 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.

When it emerged this week that U.S. health regulators are suggesting that the federal government loosen restrictions on marijuana, the news lit up the world of weed.

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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 was signed in 1970.

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

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“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 among 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 Democrats perform better than expected.


Overall support for legalization is now at 70%, the highest recorded by Gallup, which began polling the question in 1969, when just 12% of Americans favored legalizing marijuana. The substance is legal in 24 states and Washington, D.C., for adults, and a total of 38 have made it legal for medical use, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a legalization advocacy group.

The administration has pitched its marijuana agenda as part of its broader efforts to change other criminal sentencing laws and to improve job and business opportunities for people who have spent time in jail or prison.

Lake argues the two efforts combined could help Biden with Black men, another group with which he has lost support since winning election in 2020.

Padilla said he still gets asked about marijuana regulations regularly, even though California was the first state to pass a medical-use law in 1996. “It resonates with a lot of people,” he said.

In practical terms, reclassifying marijuana changes little. Federal penalties would remain the same, though the Justice Department has for decades treated most marijuana crimes as low-priority prosecutions. It would remain illegal to transport pot across state lines, meaning access to banks and financial markets will remain a hurdle, even for companies operating in states that have legalized pot.

The biggest difference is that scientists and doctors could more easily study the drug for medical uses, something that is now practically banned. Such a change could open the door for greater acceptance. It also would lower tax burdens for the industry in states where it is legal, by allowing deductions for ordinary business expenses that are currently prohibited by the Internal Revenue Service.


Other potential changes are less certain. Banks and credit card issuers, for instance, would not immediately lift restrictions on marijuana transactions, though that could come if regulators in the Treasury Department decide to take up the issue, according to Shane Pennington, an attorney specializing in the Controlled Substances Act who has industry clients.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has delivered a recommendation to the Drug Enforcement Administration on marijuana policy, a first step toward easing federal restrictions on the drug.

Aug. 30, 2023

Biden proposed reviewing marijuana’s status in October 2022, a process that usually takes an average of more than nine years, Pennington said. The Department of Health and Human Services recommended Schedule III in August, the first step toward a change. A DEA spokesperson, in an email, said the agency would not discuss the issue while it is under review.

“It often takes a very long time, but we’re in unprecedented territory here” because the order came directly from the president, Pennington said.

Harris, in her roundtable discussion on marijuana reform, showed her impatience.

“I cannot emphasize enough that they need to get to it as quickly as possible, and we need to have a resolution based on their findings and their assessment,” she said.

The rushed nature of the process could expose the administration’s actions — which are almost certain to draw lawsuits — to further scrutiny.

Kevin A. Sabet, a former marijuana policy advisor in the Obama administration who heads an anti-legalization group, noted that Biden’s Health and Human Services Department released its preliminary recommendation at 4:20 p.m., slang for weed smoking time, underscoring the political nature of a normally button-down regulatory process. He argued that the decision was poorly crafted and could run afoul of U.S. treaty obligations.


But Sabet also agrees with advocates that Biden could have gone further.

“I think what the president wants to do is reap some of the benefits of the guy who’s embracing all this stuff without actually becoming in favor of legalization,” said Sabet, who heads the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana.