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January 15, 2014 10:21 AM Takeaways from the Latest in Cannabis Legalization Polling

By Mark Kleiman

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.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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

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