Legalizing cannabis: is the ground shifting?

Polls from Rasmussen and CBS/NYT show support for cannabis legalization at 40%: still a minority view, but attitudes are clearly changing.

A new Rasmussen poll shows a plurality of the country still opposed to legalizing marijuana, but by a relatively narrow margin, 40% for, 46% against. Legalization is supported by Democrats and independents, by men, and by voters under 40. Rasmussen doesn’t give the wording, and the accompanying article is written largely from a pro-legalization viewpoint (Rasmussen tends to lean libertarian).

Under the circumstances, I’d be skeptical, but the CBS/NYT poll in January got comparable results: in response to “Do you think that the use of marijuana should be made legal or not?” 41% said “legal” and 52% said “not legal.” Current support for legalization is at what seems to be an all-time high, but the numbers are consistent with the long-term trend in Gallup polling.

(Gallup provides two other useful cross-tabs, by region and by religiosity. Regionally, the West is the outlier, with opinion nearly evenly split even back in 2005. Unsurprisingly, church attendance is a strong negative correlate of support for cannabis: in 2005, fewer than a fifth of people who said they attended church weekly or more, but half of those who said they attended seldom or never, favored legalization.)

Note that these numbers come against the backdrop of relentless official anti-pot propaganda: not just from the drug czar’s office, DEA, and the DARE program, but even from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. That suggests that a President who decided to change the message might not hit a stone wall. And the age breakdown suggests that the trend is likely to continue as the cohorts that grew up without pot leave the voter pool.

Obviously, this isn’t something the Obama Administration is going to jump on, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a big move late in a second Obama term or sometime in the term of his successor (assuming the Democrats keep winning elections). If I had to quote odds, I’d say about even money on legalization within fifteen years. As with the repeal of alcohol prohibition and the creeping legalization of gambling, I’d expect it to be presented at least in part as a revenue-raising measure.

Substantively, I’m not a big fan of legalization on the alcohol model; a legal pot industry, like the legal booze and gambling industries, would depend for the bulk of its sales on excessive use, which would provide a strong incentive for the marketing effort to aim at creating and maintaining addiction. (Cannabis abuse is somewhat less common, and tends to be somewhat less long-lasting, than alcohol abuse, and the physiological and behavioral effects tend to be less dramatic, but about 11% of those who smoke a fifth lifetime joint go on to a period of heavy daily use measured in months.) So I’d expect outright legalization to lead to a substantial increase in the prevalence of cannabis-related drug abuse disorder: I’d regard an increase of only 50% as a pleasant surprise, and if I had to guess I’d guess at something like a doubling.

So I continue to favor a “grow your own” policy, under which it would be legal to grow, possess, and use cannabis and to give it away, but illegal to sell it. [Update: Or perhaps allow it to be produced by consumer-owned co-ops.] Of course there would be sales, and law enforcement agencies would properly mostly ignore those sales. But there wouldn’t be billboards.

That beautifully-crafted policy has only two major defects that I’m aware of: it wouldn’t create tax revenue, and no one but me* supports it. On the drug-warrior side of the argument, even those who can read the handwriting on the wall won’t dare to deviate from the orthodoxy. As we did with alcohol, the country will lurch from one bad policy (prohibition) to another (commercial legalization). I just hope the sellers are required to measure the cannabinoid profiles of their products and put those measurements on the label.

Update Matt Yglesias points out that legalized pot is more popular than Republicanism. Yet under the rules of the media-political game as currently played, Sarah Palin’s lunatic views, or John Boehner’s count as respectable opinion, while cannabis legalization remains a “fringe” position.

Second update On cue, here come the “legalize-pot-to-balance-the-budget,” featuring as usual insanely inflated estimates of the size of the market and therefore of the available revenues. The total retail cannabis market in the U.S. is about $10 billion, and some of that is imported from Mexico and Canada, so the notion that the farmgate value of California’s cannabis crop exceeds that of vegetables or grapes doesn’t pass the giggle test.

* And Matt Yglesias and Andrew Sullivan. Hey, it’s a start.

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: