Seven years ago, the public opposed legalization 36/60. Today, the numbers have almost flipped — 58/39 in favor, thanks to a sharp spike that followed a few years when people were split roughly evenly on whether the drug should be legalized or not. Why the sudden spike? Simple: Now that states like Colorado and Washington are experimenting with legalization and the sky hasn’t fallen, some fencesitters are getting more comfortable with the idea. Gay marriage has gained in the polls over the last 10 years for the same reason.
This is the second poll this year to show majority support for legalization, incidentally. Pew had it at 52/45 back in April, with 65 percent of Millennials (born after 1981) leading the pack. Gallup’s got similar numbers today for young voters — but they’re not the only demographic that’s changed over time.
The majorities Pew saw in April were smaller than that — 54 percent for Generation Xers (born between 1965 and 1980) and 50 percent for Baby Boomers (1946 to 1964). Gallup’s also seeing some movement towards legalization along partisan lines, although interestingly — and maybe significantly — most of the movement’s coming from independents. At 35 percent, support among Republicans has increased just two points since last November; among Democrats, it’s up four points to 65 percent. Among indies, it’s up 12 points to 62 percent, almost equal to the Dem number. They’re the fencesitters who are tilting in response to what’s happening in Colorado and Washington, I think. Democrats and Republicans will more instinctively support or oppose legalization because of their broader ideological leanings about social experimentation, but independents might simply be looking at results. If there’s no parade of horribles in states that have legalized weed, they’ll relax their opposition a bit.
Or maybe all of that’s wrong and this poll is an outlier. Two other surveys taken earlier this year showed support for legalization creeping upward but still below majority support at 45 percent or so. We’ll have to wait for another pollster to weigh in before we draw any firm conclusions. If the next poll backs this one, though, what should the aspiring GOP nominees of tomorrow do? Arguably nothing: Like gay marriage, this is one of those issues that’s likely to matter more in a primary to opponents of legalization than to supporters. You can lose votes by boldly declaring your support for legalizing it but you probably won’t win many. Then again, if you’re Rand Paul and you’re trying to balance libertarian concerns with conservative ones, maybe you feel like you need to roll the dice on this to impress the former and build your brand for the general. Paul’s said that he believes in traditional marriage; he’s taken a more conservative than libertarian line on border enforcement; and he’s mentioned the plight of Christians in the Middle East repeatedly when talking foreign policy this year. My sense is that he’s earned enough political capital with social cons from all that to get away with a modest push for legalizing marijuana, something that would potentially impress the sort of younger voters in the general whom he thinks he’s uniquely positioned among Republicans to appeal to. But maybe I’m mistaken; the danger for Paul is that his opponents will want to paint him as a peacenik and a kook, and pushing marijuana legalization gives them an easy cultural signifier with which to do that. Could be that he’ll content himself with simply calling for lighter criminal punishment of marijuana users, especially younger ones, as a sort of baby step. You’ll find him below in a clip from March doing just that.
As for the other party, I’ll leave you with this, which is undoubtedly true:
It's going to be weird in the not-so-distant future when legalizing pot is a litmus test for Democratic primary candidates
— Benjy Sarlin (@BenjySarlin) October 22, 2013