Politics

Whether Massachusetts legalizes pot will depend on the youth vote

It’s been a while since politicians talked seriously about the priorities of young people. It’s unfair: campaigns rely on us to sign petitions, like pages on Facebook, and knock on doors in New Hampshire, but none of that translates into us being considered a viable political constituency. The reason is we don’t vote. And because we don’t vote, we don’t get to sit at the big boy’s table.

But what happens if an issue comes along that has the possibility of capturing young people’s attention, and in the process, turns us into a powerful voting bloc? Friday, the state awarded the first 20 licenses to open medical marijuana dispensaries, the next big step in Massachusetts’ flirtation with full-on legalization. And now, the pro-weed lobbying groups are preparing for their push to get a ballot question on the issue by 2016. The next two years will be interesting, as America’s quintessential nanny-state will have to look itself in the mirror and decide if it will abide legal, recreational marijuana use. Whether or not that happens will depend largely on the youth vote.

In terms of attracting young supporters, the weed advocates do have one thing going for them. College campuses across the state have proven to be fertile ground for organizations interested in legalization — since marijuana was decriminalized in 2008, students at Suffolk, UMass Amherst, Tufts, and Emerson (among others) have created groups interested in reform. Interest in existing groups has spiked, as well. According to Jeff Morris, who founded Suffolk’s branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, membership has jumped from around 100 members in 2008 to almost 2,000 now. For Morris, student interest is driven by a growing sense of confidence in political action after decriminalization and the introduction of medical marijuana, as well as by the nature of the movement itself. “Weed reform is on the cusp of being controversial, fun, and exciting,” he said.

But once again, advocates are worried that we are going to talk the talk without walking the walk, and for a movement without deep pockets, that could be fatal. It is going to be hard to convince political organizations to place their trust in a group of people who historically don’t turn out on election day. According to Bill Downing, the treasurer at Bay State Repeal, one of the main legalization groups in the state, the organization doesn’t want to take the risk. “There’s a trend for young people not to vote,” He said. “I’d be surprised to see much resources devoted to young people.”

For millennials interested in weed reform, the good news is that it is still early days in the movement. A vote for legalization is just the last step in a lengthy bureaucratic process. According to Downing, the first major step will be placing non-binding policy questions on the ballot in several districts during the governors election in 2014, each one worded slightly differently. This will give the group a sense of how voters respond to the issue, and, arguably more importantly, will show which version of the question polls best with voters. Then comes the big fundraising push and collecting the signatures required to get the measure on the ballot in 2016.

Legal weed would be great and all (and even if you’re not a toker, you’d probably agree that the tax revenue that recreational cannabis would bring the state is a good thing) but there is something much more important at stake. A concerted effort by young people on this issue would totally change how we are perceived by the Massachusetts political establishment. It doesn’t matter if young people vote for the measure or against it. In fact, a vote split down the middle would be fine, as well. Regardless, a large voter turnout among millennials will force politicians to start taking millennial issues seriously — and people who vote tend to get their issues addressed by the powers that be.

Young people are the driving force behind some of the state’s most important economic sectors, and by moving in droves to places like Boston we are spearheading urban revitalization (there are downsides to this, though). It’s about time that our political presence was felt.