The New Politics of Marijuana Legalization: Why Opinion is Changing

In less than a decade, public opinion has shifted dramatically toward support for the legalization of marijuana: A recent national survey showed a narrow national majority in favor of legalization, and its supporters translated this sentiment into ballot initiative victories in Colorado and Washington State in 2012, report E.J. Dionne, Jr. and William A. Galston.

The temptation is to conclude that the trend in favor of marijuana legalization is similar to the flow of opinion in favor of same-sex marriage, but not all hot-button social issues are created equal, Dionne and Galston write. It is much less clear that opinion on marijuana will follow the exact evolution of social issues such as marriage equality, the authors assert.

Surveying a wealth of new data on public attitudes toward marijuana legalization, this paper explains the forces and limits behind the trend toward legalization. The authors seek to answer the following: Which trajectory, that of gay marriage or abortion (if either), is more likely to augur the path that opinion on marijuana may take? And will the country see the emergence of a broad pro-legalization consensus, or rather of a durably divisive cultural disagreement?

Dionne and Galston arrive at the following conclusions:

  • In a number of respects, the structure of public opinion regarding marijuana legalization is distinctive, at least in today’s political context. Among today’s divisive issues, support for marijuana legalization is unusual in cutting across party lines. Generally, broad shifts in cultural attitudes—notably the rise of the 1960s and 1970s counterculture, and then the backlash against it in the 1980s—can trump the influence of party. Gender plays a role, but not necessarily the role one might expect: women are to the “right” of men, more likely to oppose legalization. Becoming parents appeared to have moved baby boomers toward a more conservative stance on legalization, but more recent findings suggest that parenthood may not be as strong a factor in determining one’s position as previously thought. However, married parents are more likely to oppose legalization than unmarried parents.
  • Attitudes toward legalization are marked by ambivalence, especially on the conservative side. Many of those who favor legalization do so despite believing that marijuana is harmful or reporting that they feel uncomfortable with its use. Among conservatives, many who believe marijuana should be illegal nonetheless support states’ right to legalize it and take a dim view of government’s ability to enforce a ban.
  • Support for legalization, though growing markedly, is not as intense as opposition, and is likely to remain relatively shallow so long as marijuana itself is not seen as a positive good. Whether opinion swings toward more robust support for legalization will depend heavily on the perceived success of the state legalization experiments now under way—which will hinge in part on the federal response to those experiments.
  • That said, demographic change and widespread public experience using marijuana imply that opposition to legalization will never again return to the levels seen in the 1980s. The strong consensus that formed the foundation for many of today’s stringent marijuana laws has crumbled.

Visualization 1 on demography and politics

PEW chart visualization