President Joe Biden announcement Thursday of federal pardons for thousands convicted of simple possession of marijuana will play well with Democratic voters, but it likely won't offer more than small benefits in an upcoming midterm election dominated by concerns about inflation, abortion and other pressing issues, Democratic strategists and political experts said.
However, in concert with other presidential actions, it could shore up support leading into the 2024 campaign, they said.
The strategists, who credited Biden for keeping a political promise and making the move for the right reasons, saw little political downside for Democrats, pointing to growing public support for the relaxation of marijuana penalties.
The president's proclamation, which also called for reconsidering marijuana's classification as a dangerous drug, should help intensify support among specific constituencies, including young people and voters of color, strategists said. The president mentioned the disparate impact of marijuana laws, that Black and brown people are arrested, prosecuted and convicted at greater rates than white people, even though marijuana usage rates are similar.
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NAACP President Derrick Johnson praised the president's marijuana initiative as a way to help correct unequal racial treatment in the justice system, pointing to the importance of voting for Biden in 2020.
"Today marks another significant step in addressing the systemic racism within the criminal justice system," Johnson said in a statement. "Our collective vote in 2020 is resulting in concrete progress. Vote, vote, vote. We can continue to make a difference."
Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright said Biden's action is the latest promise kept to Black voters, "the heart and soul of the Democratic Party" that was instrumental in his victories in the 2020 primaries and general election.
"This president has been very intentional and focused on making sure that communities that have been left out, left behind for a very long time, finally get what John Lewis would oftentimes say to me, 'Oceans of justice, and rivers of fairness,'" he said.
The marijuana reform could provide incentive for some supporters to get out and vote when they otherwise might have stayed home, Seawright said.
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That also could be a significant factor with younger voters, who tend to vote less often compared with older people, especially in non-presidential years.
Marijuana legalization is "especially popular with young voters across the country and in Colorado," one of the first two states to vote to legalize recreational marijuana use, said Chris Griswold, a Denver-based principal with Hilltop Public Solutions, which consults with Democratic campaigns and on various Democratic-aligned priorities, such as climate issues. "This ultimately has the impact of helping to get young voters to turn out this November."
Biden's move could help Democrats in some states, such as Pennsylvania, a swing state with close races where marijuana legalization is an ongoing debate, said Mindy Romero, director of the University of Southern California Center for Inclusive Democracy. One potential downside, she added, is that Republicans could use the president's initiative to support their argument that Democrats are soft on crime.
"Anything that can be used for political advantage will be done by either side, and I think Republicans certainly will use this in their campaigns," she said.
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It's so close to the November election that Biden's marijuana announcement may not have that big of an effect now, but it could play a role in the 2024 campaign, she said.
"Presidential elections are higher turnout. They're more diverse. There's a long runway" to 2024, she said. "If this was the start of a series of actions by the administration that could generate support for the 2024 presidential campaign - and for other Democrats as well - then maybe we should be thinking about this as a long game."
Matt Grodsky, a former Arizona Democratic party spokesman and vice president of the Matters of State Strategies political consulting firm, said marijuana reform will appeal to Democratic voters and probably independents but it's "highly unlikely to move the needle in the midterms" in Arizona, the swing state where he is based. Arizona voters approved adult personal use of marijuana in 2020.
"Given the concerns about inflation, abortion and reproductive health care rights, voting rights and what it's going to mean if we have these America First candidates take control in November, those are the dominating issues in people's minds," he said.
Grodsky did see one immediate and very short-term benefit for the president. "All the reporters are asking about this and not about gas prices," he said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Can Democrats win midterm elections with help from marijuana reform?