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December 03, 2012 12:10 PM Reality Checking the Reality Check

By Mark Kleiman

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.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the University of California Los Angeles.