Cannabis legalization and the empirical-minded median voter

Opinion shift toward support for legal cannabis has been decisive. But a plurality still says “Wait and see.”

No big surprises from the cannabis questions in the latest CNN-ORC poll. It looks as if the Gallup numbers from earlier in the year (58 for legalization, 39 against) were a bit of an outlier; the gap seems to be nearer 10 points than 20, which makes a difference. But the CNN-ORC findings, along with those from the Pew survey, confirm the decisive shift in public opinion. Support for legalization now has a clear majority. Most interesting finding, to my eyes: the new poll asked the question two ways:

“Do you think the use of marijuana should be made legal, or not?”

“Do you think the sale of marijuana should be made legal, or not?”

The answers were virtually identical: 55/44 for legal use, 54/45 for legal sale. So for those of us who have wondering whether the “use” question was inappropriately lumping supporters of decriminalization with supporters of full commercial availability, the answer is “No.” A majority really favors full legalization. On the other hand, when the question gets specific, the majority disappears:

“As you may know, Colorado now allows anyone over the age of 21 to purchase small quantities of marijuana for their own use from businesses that have been licensed by the state government to sell marijuana. Do you think this is a good idea or a bad idea, or do you want to see what happens in Colorado and other states that legalize marijuana before you decide how you feel about this matter?”   

“Good idea” leads “bad idea” by a small plurality, 33/27, but the largest group (37%) wants to wait and see.  Yes, of course phrasing the question that way encouraged the wait-and-see answer, but it’s encouraging that so many voters are empirically-minded on this issue rather than fixed in one of two fact-proof ideological camps.

Even among those who oppose legal pot, most prefer to have users pay fines rather than going to jail. And support for medical marijuana is overwhelming: 88/10.

All of this suggests that those who oppose legalization have chosen a grossly inappropriate strategy, if their objective is winning as oppposed to mere fundraising and personal advancement. Moral denunciation, opposition to medical research (with actual cannabis, not hypothetical individual molecules), and support for user penalties are all losing moves. Instead of simply posing  their own prejudices and certainties against those of the legalizers, they ought to offer cautious experimentalism. The median voter might buy “Wait and see,” if it appeared sincere. But she’s way past “No, nay, never!”

Footnote Logically, of course, “Wait and see” isn’t a clear pragmatic implication of uncertainty. Waiting also has costs. The right conclusion is “Make cautious changes that are easy to modify in the light of new evidence, and watch for that evidence.” The big problem for the “No” side is that if there are going to be large bad consequences from legalization, they will likely develop over years, not months.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

4 thoughts on “Cannabis legalization and the empirical-minded median voter”

  1. The implication of the last paragraph before the footnote is that any drug warrior who opts for moral denunciation to the exclusion of any other strategy is interested only in fundraising or personal advancement.

    Though I’m not generally a great admirer of drug warriors, this doesn’t seem entirely fair. I suspect that most honest prohibitionists are well aware that cannabis is medically harmless and possibly even useful, but object to it purely on moral/cultural grounds. For such people, sticking to moral denunciation may be ineffective, but it’s at least honest. And they can’t be argued into endorsing an experimental regime because in doing so they surrender the moral argument which is the basis for their position in the first place.

  2. I’d tread lightly on the two questions about use and sale. Individual survey items are prone to lots of measurement error. The best results are generally received by asking a small battery of more specific items–such as these two–and constructing a somewhat more general index of opinion, in this case on attitudes toward marijuana policy.

    That the two responses are so close is suggestive to me that they aren’t really picking up on different signals about public attitudes toward two very different questions of public policy. Rather, they’re probably picking up a single, more general pro/con attitude toward liberalization relative to the status quo.

    1. For a question about sale, the context and priming questions would be crucial. When most people think about decriminalizing or legalizing the sale of marijuana, unless prompted they’re going to imagine a system not too much unlike the current one, only without the danger of arrest, rather than widespread commercial/industrial distribution and marketing.

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