Reality checking the reality check

Under the header “Reality Check II,” Andrew Sullivan reports:

There’s a new poll out on ending Prohibition on marijuana. This one’s a CBS News’ poll taken after the election, and it shows a 47 – 47 percent tie on whether marijuana should be legalized. When Obama was first elected, the same poll with the same question had the answer at 52 – 41 majority in favor of retaining Prohibition. And I’m not talking about medical marijuana here. I’m talking full-out legalization, regulation and taxation.

Well, actually, no.

It’s true that Sullivan is talking about full commercial legalization. And it’s true that voters in Colorado and Washington State approved full commercial legalization.

But the question on the CBS poll was actually:

Do you think that the use of marijuana should be made legal or not?

[emphasis added]

Legalizing use (to be precise, possession for personal use) would be important, a major step beyond decriminalization. Before Colorado and Washington State, no state had done it. (Those provisions will remain active even if the feds shut down commercial sale.)

But allowing commercial sale is a much more radical move. And public opinion polls mostly don’t ask about it. An exception is a CNN poll from about a year ago, roughly contemporaneous with a Gallup poll showing majority support for making it legal to “use” cannabis. When CNN asked about “legalization of marijuana,” without mentioning “use,” respondents opposed it 41-56.

There’s no doubt opinions have shifted strongly in the pro-pot direction over the past five or ten years. And the Colorado and Washington votes demonstrate that, with sufficient resources and skill, voting majorities for the full Monty can be established in some states. If attitudes continue to shift, support for full legalization may become the majority view nationally, especially if Colorado and Washington are allowed to proceed and no disaster follows.
But support for full legalization is not the majority view today. So advocates need to be cautious about triumphalist claims that legal pot is the “will of the people.”

Public opinion can’t be changed by incantation; ask President Romney.


  1. Ken Doran says

    A real problem here is the murkiness of the terms “legalization” and “decriminalization”. Drug policy professionals appear to have arrived at reasonably precise and stable definitions, but otherwise usage is all over the map. It doesn’t help a bit that the status of alcohol under prohibition is generally conceded to constitute “decriminalization” under precise modern usage. I believe that is terminology issue is a real complication for productive public discussion and debate — including useful opinion polls.

    • Warren Terra says

      I’m not an expert – I don’t even follow the issue that closely – but I don’t recognize the way you’re using “decriminalization” such that it applies to alcohol. I have seen “decriminalization” used to describe the reclassifying of minor possession as a ticketable offense rather than an arrestable crime, or even the reclassifying of minor possession as something to be ignored (though perhaps with confiscation, I’m not clear) – but in both cases possession of a larger amount or trafficking would remain a serious crime, rather than even a heavily regulated activity. That’s really not a situation comparable to the way we handle alcohol.

    • rachelrachel says

      “Decriminalization” isn’t really the appropriate term to describe alcohol under Prohibition, since its possession was never criminalized to begin with.

      • Ken Doran says

        True, of course. However, my point (and much more importantly, Our Founder’s point, see link above) is that the scheme created for alcohol by Prohibition is in fact very similar the the scheme for marijuana envisioned by “careful” use of the term “decriminalization”. I continue to believe that this is a source of confusion that impairs useful public discussion, including polling.

    • says

      Strictly speaking, legalization and decriminalization refer to changes in policy i.e. Prohibited — (legalization) –> Legal, and Criminal sanctions for possession –(decriminalization)–> Non-criminal sanctions for possession.

      Maybe a different set of terms is needed to describe the spectrum of policy regimes in and of themselves, without recourse to how the policy got there.

  2. Igloo says

    I disagree that lying about polls is not an effective tactic. It tends to demoralize opposition. Certainly anti legalization forces were badly outspent in WA and CO in part because the initiatives always polled well as worded.

    Just because it didn’t work for Romney, especially when GOP polling lies were easy to refute because of mountains of independent polling, doesn’t change the value of the tactic.

  3. Freeman says

    The worm has turned

    As lobbyists, NORML has been writing and proposing legislation for years designed to tackle the “baby steps” of marijuana legalization.

    They’ve got bills that would enact degrees of decriminalization, making certain violations of the law into infractions rather than misdemeanors with jail time. They’ve got medical marijuana bills, bills for industrial hemp, and sentencing reform.

    When they recently began getting phone calls from congressmen looking to enact marijuana reform, they rolled out the usual script.

    “When we sat down with these representatives, we began with our usual playbook,” St. Pierre said. “They said “We don’t care about decrim anymore. We want a tax and regulate bill from you folks.” And that’s where we find ourselves now, up to our ears with the staff and the parliamentarians writing at breakneck speed, because we’ve got folks competing on the Hill now against each other as to who is going to write the biggest, best, most popular marijuana bill.”

  4. BillG883 says

    I think you have it wrong. When people are asked simply if they believe marijuana should be legal, I think for many that means like tomatoes or something, legal for anyone without restrictions. There have been a lot of legalization polls and it seems legalization does better when the question asked is if it should be legal like alcohol, taxed and regulated and only sold to adults.

    • Joe says

      I agree completely, Bill. Mark’s stuff has really changed how I think about this issue, but I can remember my naive impressions. I’m sure people answered that question as if it meant you could buy marijuana in a store.

  5. Jeff H in CA says

    Public opinion can’t be changed by incantation; ask President Romney.

    —No, but it can be changed by taxpayer dollars, just ask the DEA. They’ve wasted a trillion of them over the last forty years, no small part of that going to scare tactics and outright lies.

    Lying does work. In fact, the bigger the lie, the more likelihood you can get folks to swallow it.