Friday, June 21, 2024

Finding Middle Ground In The National Marijuana Debate

Americans rarely rank “culture war” issues among their top priorities, but these issues nonetheless play an outsized role in determining how people view their leaders. For many voters, a politician’s positions and statements on social issues are a gut check, indicating whether a policymaker generally shares their values, perspective, and approach to American society and the world.

This manual looks at the mindset of Americans in the middle on:

  1. Abortion and Contraception
  2. Immigration
  3. Religious Liberty and LGBT Non-Discrimination
  4. Guns
  5. Marijuana

For each of the five topics, Third Way explains how the middle approaches the issue using public opinion data, describe how to talk about it in ways that find common ground and resonate with the values of Americans in the middle, and recommend how to talk about a handful of specific legislative proposals.

What The Middle Thinks

The views of the middle on marijuana are nuanced and complicated. According to a recent Quinnipiac poll, 59 percent of American voters support legalizing marijuana broadly, while 36 percent oppose it. Some polls have found even higher levels of support, reaching into the 60s. However, this steadily rising number disguises a more complicated reality. Ninety-three percent of voters support legalizing medical marijuana, meaning that a third of them — 34 percent — support marijuana use for medical purposes without supporting broader legalization. The voters who fill this space between blanket legalization and total prohibition form what we call the “marijuana middle.” Based on our public opinion polling, this group skews towards white women, people ages 50 and over, and self-identified moderates or conservatives.  

Despite its torn views on legalization itself, the marijuana middle is quite clear in its belief that the current conflict between state laws that legalize marijuana and federal laws that prohibit it is untenable — and that Congress has a responsibility to fix it. In our polling, 67 percent of voters said Congress should pass a bill giving states that have legalized marijuana a safe haven from federal marijuana laws, so long as they have a strong regulatory system. Even almost a quarter of those voters who oppose legalizing marijuana for recreational use support a safe haven policy that would let states act within federal guidelines. When given an option of state or federal control, a clear majority of the electorate believes states should control and decide whether to legalize marijuana (60 percent state control compared to 34 percent federal government enforcement). And a full 71 percent of Americans — including majorities of every single demographic group — oppose the federal government going into states that have chosen to legalize marijuana for medical or recreational purposes to enforce the federal ban. Americans — in particular the marijuana middle — recognize that the current system doesn’t work, and they responded in our polling not with ideological proclamations but by supporting a middle-ground, commonsense safe haven policy that would ease that conflict as the legal landscape continues to quickly shift.

How To Appeal To The Middle

The best way to frame marijuana discussions to appeal to the marijuana middle is to allow states to be responsible actors within set federal guardrails. Because of the federal prohibition on marijuana, states’ efforts to effectively regulate their markets are severely hampered and their ability to be responsible regulators is curtailed by fears of federal preemption lawsuits. However, not all state legalization laws are equally effective, which is why we also need to maintain federal guardrails that steer states towards protecting federal interests, like keeping roads and kids drug-free.

Additionally, when talking to the middle it is critically important to distinguish marijuana from other drugs — not lump them together. While talking about the failure of the drug war may be effective with young white men and some Independents, it does not speak to the marijuana middle. Another common mistake is an over-reliance on the popularity of medical marijuana. Though there is overwhelming support for its legalization, it is only a place to start the conversation — focusing on medical marijuana alone does not necessarily lead the marijuana middle towards support for full legalization. Instead, talking only about medical marijuana cries out for a targeted, medical-only solution, one that fails to resolve the conflicts on the ground being experienced by the eight states (and D.C.) that have already legalized recreational marijuana. Instead, voters in the middle respond to the idea that the pragmatic choice is to give states that are acting responsibly the ability to effectively regulate both medical and recreational marijuana where voters have decided one or both should be legal—and to crack down on states that are legalizing marijuana in irresponsible ways.

Advice For Talking About Specific Legislative Proposals

Speaking to the middle about federal enforcement in states that have legalized:

  • Ninety-eight percent of Americans live in a state that has legalized some form of marijuana — but all of those laws are in violation of the federal ban. That means every cancer patient using medical marijuana, business owner operating a dispensary, or banker providing financial services for a marijuana company is at risk of federal prosecution, fines, and jail time even though they are following the laws in their state.
  • Congress has already spoken on this issue — by directly prohibiting the Administration from enforcing the federal ban in states that have legalized medical marijuana. First passed in 2014, Congress has included a policy rider in every federal appropriations bill since that ties the hands of the Drug Enforcement Administration so that states can enact effective regulatory systems. That rider has now passed the Republican-controlled House Floor and Senate Appropriations Committee several times, every time with growing bipartisan support. And if House Leadership would allow a vote, it would easily be extended to also cover recreational marijuana states.
  • If states are going to be laboratories of democracy when it comes to marijuana legalization, we have to give them the space to effectively regulate their markets without the threat of the Drug Enforcement Administration airdropping in. That sort of threat not only incentivizes hands-off regulations, it also scares away the banks and legitimate entrepreneurs that a community needs for the industry to function safely and responsibly.
  • Everyone agrees that a federal crackdown would be bad policy. Nearly three-quarters of the American public opposes it. The Governors in several states that have legalized — even those who did not personally support legalization in the first place —have written to the Attorney General, defending their states’ regulatory systems and asking him to not to intervene. And the Department of Justice doesn’t have the resources to enforce the federal ban on marijuana in the 46 states who laws currently violate it.

Speaking To The Middle About “Safe Haven” Legislation:

  • We need to resolve the conflict between state legalization and federal prohibition by creating a safe haven for states that have robust regulatory systems. With a waiver system, states will be able to more effectively regulate their marijuana markets because they won’t be hamstrung by concerns that limit state employees from interacting with marijuana due to fear of being targeted by federal officials—even for consumer protection purposes like testing and labeling. Banks will be able to serve legal marijuana businesses, ending their need to rely on all-cash systems that present a huge risk for crime. And participants in legal state markets—from cancer patients to business owners—will no longer have to live in fear of future federal prosecution.
  • Not all state marijuana legalization laws are created equal. Safe haven proposals like the SMART Enforcement Act introduced by Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-WA) would give the federal government a tool to guide the states, through the waiver process, to establish strict and effective systems that protect important federal interests. Other proposed solutions could leave the government unable to step in to prevent drugged driving, youth access, or gang violence. If the federal government’s hands are tied, it could perpetuate a wild west of marijuana, where states establish wildly differing regulatory schemes that don’t take into account federal interests or prioritize public safety.
  • The SMART Enforcement Act would establish a process for ongoing oversight by requiring that waivers are reauthorized every three years, if eligible. It would guarantee that the federal government will have a chance to monitor whether states are regulating marijuana responsibly, review data on long-term effects of legalization, and prompt a course correction if need be.

For a look at the other four topics, visit the Third Way story

Lanae Erickson Hatalsky and Nathan Kasai contributed to this report. For more information or assistance, please contact Sarah Trumble at or (202) 384-1722.


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