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Should weed be legal? Biden and Trump have chance to back popular idea in swing states.

Joe Biden and Donald Trump have a prime political opportunity to pounce on marijuana legalization, especially in four key swing states.

Chris Brennan

American voters face a November rematch for president that many did not want, and the winner will be the oldest man ever to hold or retake the White House. So courting young voters makes plenty of sense for President Joe Biden and the man he defeated in 2020, Donald Trump.

And there's an issue that, while polling strongly with all Americans, really appeals to voters under the age of 35 − the legalization of marijuana.

Three of the anticipated seven swing states already have approved full recreational and medical use for marijuana − Arizona, Michigan and Nevada. The other four − Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin − all still have strict limitations. This, despite plenty of polling in those states and nationwide that shows strong support for full legalization.

One problem there, according to Morgan Fox, the political director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), is that public support has always been "a mile wide and an inch deep."

That's another way of saying that while plenty of people favor legalization, it has never been a political priority for them. "But that's definitely starting to change, especially as we roll into the next presidential election, where we have arguably one of the most informed young electorates that we've ever had," Fox told me.

Polls show strong support for marijuana legalization

Demonstrators calling for marijuana legalization rally in Austin, Texas, in 2022. That year, President Joe Biden ordered a review of the drug's status as a Schedule I substance, which denotes that a drug has no accepted medical use and has high potential for abuse.

Gallup, in a survey released in November, said public support for legalization hit a record 70% "after holding steady at 68%" for the three previous years. And the younger you are, the more likely you feel that way. The survey found 79% support from people ages 18-34, 71% for respondents ages 35-54, and 64% for those 55 or older.

There was strong bipartisan support as well among Democrats (87%), independents (70%) and Republicans (55%).

Biden and Trump clearly know this, though they have taken different approaches to legalization.

Biden, during his State of The Union address in March, noted that he had called for a federal review of marijuana being classified as a "Schedule 1 drug," which means it has "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse," according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, which lists heroin and LSD in the same category.

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Biden also touted his expungements of thousands of criminal convictions for people charged on federal land, repeating a phrase he has used often − "because no one should be jailed for using or possessing marijuana!" 

Biden softened his resistance to legalization during the 2020 campaign, but NORML still wants more from him.

"He has not lived up to his promises on the campaign trail in terms of decriminalizing and de-scheduling," Fox said. "But he has done more than any sitting president ever on this issue."

Trump, during his one term as president, issued pardons for people convicted for distributing marijuana and, on his last day in office, commuted the sentences for a dozen people convicted of similar crimes.

But in an interview with Newsmax last year, Trump called marijuana "pretty popular" while warning it does "significant damage." This month, in a speech at the National Rifle Association's Leadership Forum, he shifted blame for gun violence to "genetically engineered cannabis and other narcotics are causing psychotic breaks."

Fox told me Trump "did a lot of pretty decent things" on criminal justice reform and marijuana while in office.

"But when asked on the campaign trail, the former president really did not have a solid or cogent position on the issue," he said.

Marijuana laws vary by state

The swing states that have not embraced legalization are governed by a patchwork of marijuana laws that don't come anywhere close to meeting what the voters want.

In Georgia, the state keeps a registry of people who can use "low THC oil" for medical uses. A poll last year by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the University of Georgia found that 53% of the registered voters in that state said marijuana should be fully legal for adults.

"We don't consider Georgia to have an effective medical cannabis program," Fox said.

In North Carolina, medical marijuana became available for purchase this month on the tribal lands of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. But Fox warned: "The second you step off tribal land you are subject to arrest."

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North Carolina's legislature considered but did not pass a medical marijuana bill last year. A Meredith College poll in February found that 78% of registered voters in that state support medical marijuana.

Pennsylvania approved medical marijuana in 2016, but Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat elected in 2020 and widely expected to run for president in 2028, pitched full legalization in his February budget address as a way to raise $250 million in state revenue per year.

A Franklin & Marshall College Poll of registered Pennsylvania voters this month found that 62% support full legalization.

And in Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers supports full legalization or just medical marijuana. But the state legislature, which looked at only medical uses, in February punted the issue until next year.

A recent Marquette Law School Poll of registered Wisconsin voters found that 86% support medical marijuana while 63% support full legalization.

There is a prime political opportunity for Biden and Trump to pounce on the issue, especially in these four states.

Decriminalization doesn't cut it with a majority of voters, who want marijuana legalized 54 years after it was added to the list of Schedule 1 drugs by the the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

In a hyperpartisan election cycle with candidates and voters at odds over so many issues, why not grab hold of and run with an issue so many people agree on?

Follow USA TODAY elections columnist Chris Brennan on X, formerly known as Twitter: @ByChrisBrennan

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