More polling on pot

The WaPo reports 46% support for the “legalization” of cannabis. But what the poll actually asked about was legalizing possession of small amounts for personal use. That’s a different policy, usually called “decriminalization.” But the number is still surprisingly high. The anti-drug crusade seems to have lost steam.

Two recent polls by the same outfit have disagreed sharply about how much public support there is for legalizing cannabis. Either 31% or 41% supports the idea, depending on which NYT poll you look at.

Now (via Kevin Drum) the Washington Post comes in with what seems to be a new data point, as part of a larger story looking at softening attitudes on social issues across the board, including gay marriage and immigration. Support for “legalization” is reported at 46%, which would be the highest level I’ve seen.

However, the actual wording of the question was about possession, not about dealing:

Forty-six percent of all respondents said they supported legalizing “possession of small amounts for personal use,” with rates of support higher among men, among younger voters and among independents, a majority of whom supported legalization.

Legalizing possession but not sales is the weird hybrid policy usually referred to as “decriminalization.” It would have the advantage of eliminating several hundred thousand arrests per year, but it wouldn’t eliminate the illicit market or reduce our contribution to the extraordinary violence now shaking northern Mexico. On the contrary, decriminalization would leave what presumably would be a somewhat larger market in the hands of the criminals. Now that might still be a good idea, since the effect of decriminalization alone seems to be small. But it seems to me that once you decide to allow possession for personal use, you might as well allow production for personal use.

In any case, the 46% figure can’t be compared with the 31% or 41% from the NYT polls. It’s about a different issue.

Still, I doubt that even the decrim question would have gotten that much support in any poll since the beginning of the second War on Drugs in 1979. This is clearly not an issue the Obama Administration intends to take up anytime soon, but when and if it does there seems to be some running room.

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: