No radical shift in social values and public opinion occurs overnight. The acceptance and normalization of medical and recreational cannabis is obviously a gradual process.
Recently, several opinion polls and surveys have indicated, for the first time in modern history, that a majority of Americans favor some form of cannabis legalization. Some pundits predict today’s levels of majority support will make cannabis legalization a serious topic in the 2016 presidential election and force all leaders and politicians to address the issue.
Fox News, the latest organization to conduct a survey of marijuana opinions, has revealed that 51 percent of Americans favor legalization, while 44 percent oppose it. This is the first time that a majority of respondents to a Fox News survey indicated a favorable opinion of cannabis legalization.
The previous poll, conducted in January 2014, indicated a clean split, with 50 percent favoring legalization. In the 2013 Fox News poll, only 46 percent favored legal pot. Regardless of the exact polling numbers, the Fox News survey produced results similar to others: Americans are increasingly in favor of cannabis legalization, be it medical or recreational.
One of the best illustrations of this trend is the Gallop poll, which first began asking Americans about their opinions of pot legalization back in 1969. At the time, only 12 percent of those responding said they favored legal cannabis. By 1977, that number had jumped to 28 percent. It wasn’t until 2011 that 50 percent of those responding favored legal pot. Only two years later, in 2013, support was pegged at 58 percent — but this was probably a survey anomaly. In 2014, support was shown to be 51 percent (with a four percent margin of error).
The good news: A majority of Americans favor legalization of cannabis. But just barely. Which leaves plenty of people who are opposed to the kind herb. With such tight margins, something as simple as a greater turnout of elderly citizens at the voting booth — who are more likely to oppose marijuana legalization — could defeat ballot initiatives in several states in 2015 and 2016. As indicated by the recent Pew Research poll, the irony is that young people show vastly greater support for legalization than even middle aged citizens, yet are the least likely to vote.
Gender & Age Gaps
Several studies have revealed a pronounced gender gap, with men favoring legalization more than women. Quinnipiac University’s study in February revealed that 63 percent of men in Colorado support legalization, while only 53 percent of women in the state feel the same. The Quinnipiac study also showed that 82 percent of voters aged 18-34 favor legalization, while only 46 percent of those 55 or older do. Likewise, the recent CBS News poll indicated that a majority of men favor legalization, while women are split on the issue.
There’s no question that younger citizens are overwhelmingly in favor of cannabis legalization. Thus, the challenge becomes getting these young people to head to the polls in 2015, 2016, and beyond. With critical swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida all facing ballot initiatives in 2015 or 2016 — and very narrow margins favoring legalization — victory for marijuana proponents will be an issue of getting enough young and middle aged voters to turn out on election day.
The cultural and political acceptance of medical and recreational marijuana in “experimental” and progressive states like California, Oregon, and Colorado has been critical to the growing popularity of all forms of cannabis. However, traditionally conservative states like Ohio and Pennsylvania will be pivotal to pushing other, less progressive, states into legalization.
If initiatives in states like Michigan, Florida, and Pennsylvania fail, it will send a signal to Congress and Republicans that their opposition to legalization has real teeth and the fight isn’t over. If such states embrace marijuana legalization, it could be the sign to congressional leaders that legal pot is a reality in America’s heartland and not going away. If advocates can win over conservative states — Georgia recently legalized very limited medical marijuana for a brief list of diseases — it will be a sign that the tide is truly turning and federal-level legalization may be within grasp.