Public Polling on Marijuana Is More Complicated Than You May Realize | Opinion

Earlier this year, Emerson College polling confirmed that Americans' views on marijuana legalization are more diverse than has previously been reported. The poll found that when presented with the real-world scenario of different policy choices, 62% of Americans favored policies other than the full legalization of the drug. In the wake of this poll, and defeats of legalization bills in South Dakota and Virginia in February, it is clear there are widespread concerns about Big Pot.

The Emerson poll included four policy options: illegality, decriminalization of low-level use, legalization for medicinal purposes only and the full legalization of the sale, cultivation and personal use of marijuana.

Remarkably, most polls on marijuana do not take this nuanced approach, opting instead to provide only two options—illegality or full legalization. Such polls deeply distort the actual views of the public. For instance, when only presented with a binary choice, Gallup found that 77% of 18-to-34-year-olds indicated their support for the legalization of marijuana. However, when given additional options, Emerson's poll found that this demographic's support for legalization dropped from a nearly four-fifths majority to a mere 43% plurality––with a 57% majority rejecting full legalization. Given that this demographic maintains the most favorable view of marijuana overall, these results demonstrate that a much greater percentage of Americans reject the full legalization of the drug.

Not surprisingly, Big Pot and those who lobby for the legalization of marijuana continue to gloss over findings that reveal their movement lacks widespread support, and that a majority of Americans oppose their efforts. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), a pro-legalization operation, maintains a database of national and state-level polls regarding marijuana. This self-proclaimed "clearinghouse for marijuana-related information," however, omitted the findings from Emerson College. There's little wonder why.

The Emerson College poll also suggested that voters in states that have fully legalized marijuana are experiencing some buyer's remorse. For instance, nine of the 12 states in the Census' West region––ranging from California to Colorado and Washington to Alaska––have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Despite the seeming popularity of legalization, less than 40% of voters in this region remain in favor of this policy.

The poll also cast doubt on one of the leading arguments trotted out by Big Pot and pro-marijuana activists: the idea that legalization will advance broader racial equity. Emerson's poll found that only 31% of African Americans support the full legalization of marijuana, and more than twice as many—69%—do not favor it.

Dozens of marijuana dispensaries (stores) have opened
Dozens of marijuana dispensaries (stores) have opened along the Highway 50 lakeshore drive since the legalization of recreation cannabis was passed by voters in 2016 as viewed on October 17, 2021, in South Lake Tahoe, California. George Rose/Getty Images

Emerson also conducted two identical state-level polls in Maryland and New Hampshire. In Maryland, twice as many Hispanics favor keeping marijuana illegal than do those who favor full legalization—35% and 17%, respectively. And in New Hampshire, four times as many African Americans favor keeping marijuana illegal than do those who favor full legalization—42% and 10.5%, respectively.

One's opinion about marijuana also correlates with his or her civic engagement, more broadly. Among Marylanders who did not vote in the 2020 presidential election, 67% favored the full legalization of marijuana. But among those who did vote, regardless of who they voted for, this number dropped to 44%.

A binary choice Rasmussen poll found 54% of Republicans support legalization. But the Emerson poll found only 27% of Republicans support the full legalization of marijuana. Moreover, only 41% of Democrats support the same.

Only 29% of Americans 65 or older were found to favor the full legalization of marijuana—the least supportive of all age groups. Additionally, the Census reported voter turnout was highest among 65-to-74-year-olds, with 76% having voted in the 2020 presidential election. Put two and two together, and it is no surprise why state-level, non-medical marijuana legalization attempts consistently fail.

The marijuana industry regularly touts polls that rely on the binary choice of either illegality or full-on legalization. When Americans are provided with additional options, such as decriminalization and legalization for medicinal purposes only, they voice their preference for more nuanced, middle-ground options. Public opinion should inform public policy. Policymakers must reject the full legalization of marijuana in favor of a safer, fairer, more effective approach to marijuana that more accurately represents the views of their constituents.

Dr. Kevin Sabet is a former senior drug policy advisor to the Obama administration and currently serves as president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana. His latest book, Smokescreen: What the Marijuana Industry Doesn't Want You to Know, was published on April 20 by Simon & Schuster and is available everywhere books are sold.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.