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Swing state voters support legal pot: What does that mean for 2016?

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Steve Dipaola/Reuters/File

(Read caption) Buds are removed from a container at the 'Oregon's Finest' medical marijuana dispensary in Portland, Oregon in April 2014.

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If 2012 was the year that gay marriage struck a resounding win at the ballot box, will 2016 be the year for marijuana legalization?

That's what some advocates are suggesting, thanks in part to a new Quinnipiac poll that finds a majority of voters in several swing states support legalizing marijuana, a point which may help catapult the issue into the 2016 presidential race.

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According to the Quinnipiac survey, some 55 percent of voters in Florida, 52 percent in Ohio, and 51 percent in Pennsylvania, are in favor of allowing adults "to legally possess small amounts of marijuana for personal use."

When it comes to medical marijuana, those numbers shoot even higher. Some 84 percent of voters in Florida and Ohio, and 88 percent in Pennsylvania, say medical marijuana should be legal, according to the poll.

The findings may not be surprising, considering that an increasing number of states are considering legalizing or have legalized marijuana, both for medicinal and recreational use.

Medical marijuana is now legal in 23 states and in Washington, D.C., and recreational marijuana is now legal in three states and Washington, D.C. Oregon's law legalizing recreational marijuana is set to take effect July 1, with activists in a handful of other states pushing ballot measures.

And while marijuana consumption remains illegal under federal law, many pot advocates and observers say legalization will be a key issue in the 2016 presidential race.

"[M]arijuana policy is a topic that 2016 presidential candidates will not be able to avoid or dismiss with a pithy talking point," Brookings fellow John Hudak wrote last month. "It is one that candidates will have to think about and engage."

That's because marijuana has become less of a liability – gone are the days of politicians assuring voters they "didn't inhale" – and more of a political sweet spot, as increasing numbers of Americans back legalizing marijuana.

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In fact, 51 percent of Americans said they favor legalization of marijuana, part of a decade-long trend towards support for legal weed, according to a recent Gallup survey. In 2004, nearly two-thirds of Americans were against it.

The topic of legal weed even made its way into last month's Conservative Political Action Conference, where top Republican politicians were pushed on the issue.

While some, like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, offered more hardline stances on the topic, others, like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, have turned to an old Republican standby to inch toward legalization: hailing states' rights as a means to get the federal government out of individual states' campaigns to legalize marijuana.

Democrats have an even easier entrée: Using legalization as means to push for criminal justice reform, and to talk about the racial, social, and economic implications of marijuana arrests. (Current drug laws crack down disproportionately on non-violent drug offenders, particularly in communities of color.)

(For the record, however, top Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, recently cast doubt on legalization and echoed a typical Republican stance when she said "the states are the laboratories of democracy.")

As Brooking's Mr. Hudak said, for Democrats, marijuana "will make an easy vehicle to continue the conversation on race, equality, opportunity, economics and justice."

Certainly, legalization will never poll as highly on Americans' priority lists as jobs and education, and it doesn't quite draw the same passion and fervor as say, gay marriage, but for both parties, marijuana legalization presents an opportunity to connect with younger voters, and possibly, to boost voter turnout.

Already, activists are making an offer to political candidates in select states, reports the Huffington Post: "Embrace legalized pot and win over a chunk of the youth vote."

"It appears having marijuana-related initiatives on the ballot produce a greater turnout among younger voters," Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, told the Huffington Post in an e-mail.

If a 2016 presidential candidate comes out against legalization, added Colorado Democratic consultant Jill Hanauer, "it will be to their peril, because millennials will be such huge segment of the voting public in 2016..."

2016 may not be the marijuana election, as some have predicted, but it will be a much larger part of the conversation than it has been in previous cycles.