Support for legalization of marijuana has been building nation-wide. Most recently, President Obama raised a stir when questioned why it was treated differently than alcohol. The latest PackPoll of N.C. State undergraduates (November, 2013) found that 50% said marijuana should be legal, but far fewer, just 29%, opposed legalization (another 20% said they had no opinion). Support for legalization ticked upward from 47% since the last time we asked this question (March, 2012).
Around the same time we conducted the last PackPoll, Gallup conducted a survey of adults nationwide, finding that 58% supported marijuana legalization. Yet, Gallup did not offer respondents the opportunity to say they had “no opinion” about the topic, which negatively affects our ability to compare our results to theirs. If we exclude students who said they had no opinion, however, 63% expressed an opinion supported legalization, a slightly higher percentage than among adults. Harsh penalties for using marijuana could soon be coming to an end, if support for legalization trending upwards and legislative moves by Colorado and Washington are good indicators.
The Pack Poll also conducted a question wording experiment to learn if support for legalization is contingent on the justification for using it. We utilized a split-ballot technique where, at random, about half of our sample was asked, “Do you think the use of marijuana should be made legal, or not”? The other half was asked about making “the recreational use of marijuana…legal, or not”? Although support for recreational use of marijuana was slightly lower than without stipulating why (49% vs. 51%), the gap in opinions is not statistically significant. Recreational use of marijuana makes no difference to students, but a similar survey experiment conducted by Public Policy Polling (PPP) suggests reasons matter to adults. The PPP poll of adults in North Carolina found 63% supported legalization for medicinal uses, but just 42% thought it should be available to adults in general.
When we examine the relationship between demographics and opinions, we uncover some interesting findings. For example, juniors and seniors were more supportive of legalization (58% and 57%, respectively) than freshman (41%) or sophomores (46%). Although we did not include many questions that might helps us to explain these age differences, we did ask if respondents had ever smoked marijuana, and how frequently. Having smoked, and more often, increases support legalization, and freshmen were the least likely to report smoking. Almost 9 in 10 students who had smoked marijuana (87%) said it should be legal, while a majority of non-users (53%) said it should be illegal; meanwhile, just 30% of freshman reported ever smoking marijuana, while 40% of sophomores, juniors and seniors has smoked before.
Males were also more likely than females to support legalization (55% vs. 48%). This result is consistent with the results of other polls that find a gender gap. Some believe that the cause for this gender gap is due to a women’s greater concern for the potential impact on issues of “public health, crime, and the social fabric”.
The Pack Poll anticipated finding important partisan and ideological differences in attitudes about legalization, which were indeed uncovered. Democrats supported marijuana legalization more than Republicans (67% vs. 33%) and Independents (67% vs. 54%). Those that self-identified as liberals supported legalization more than conservatives (75% vs. 25%) and moderates (75% vs. 54%). We do not know, however, if students develop an opinion about marijuana first and then choose to identify with a party that is more likely support that viewpoint, or if students simply adopt the position generally held by other members of their own party.
The last demographic variable we investigate is race. The results show that “whites” are slightly less supportive of making marijuana legal than “non-whites” (50% vs. 57%). This is an interesting finding given the context surrounding the debate around the legalization of marijuana. Criminalization data show the effects of the prohibition of marijuana are not felt equally across racial groups, with minorities, namely blacks, more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for marijuana possession than their white cohorts. One possible explanation, then, of minorities’ higher levels of support for legalization could be their greater awareness of this discrepancy, since non-whites were slightly less likely to report having smoked than whites (36% vs. 38%).
Opinion: By Rashaad Hamilton
In light of the recent legalization in Colorado and Washington state, some political pundits have taken to their “high horse” to moralize about the dangers of wide spread legalization of marijuana. Look no further than the comments made by David Brooks, a writer for the New York Times. In his article, “Weed: Been There. Done That,” Brooks’ views were alarming because of the hypocrisy so blatantly demonstrated. After admitting to enjoying marijuana when he was younger, Brooks claims that the laws codifying a prohibition against marijuana are in place to ensure a “temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship”. He continues by saying, smoking marijuana is not an “uplifting form of pleasure” when commenting on the dangers of a “stoned populace.”
I won’t deny my own trepidation when it comes to supporting the recreational use of marijuana. In fact, I agree with Brooks’ sentiment that the use of marijuana “should be discouraged more than encouraged.” However, I disagree about the methods utilized to do so. David Brooks claims that by legalizing marijuana, Colorado is “nurturing a moral ecology” in which it is harder to be the sort of person “most of us want to be.” Without commenting on the purported higher morals he alludes to, I take exception to the belief that the use of marijuana is more damaging to someone’s potential than a marijuana conviction.
In fact, my disagreement is due to the cost of the type of “discouragement” Brooks’ is advocating for. Michelle Goldberg, a writer for the Nation, chose to shift the debate from the potential drawbacks of a “stoned populace” to the unequal consequences as a result of using a substance that, as she points out, “many if not most of our elites have at one time or another enjoyed with impunity.” Reports, like the one conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), find that though black people smoke at a similar rate to white people, blacks are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested. This is troubling when you consider the effects of a subsequent conviction, which in addition to jail time, a conviction can carry with it a debilitating impact on future earning capacities.
As a result of the Higher Education Act, signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1998, anyone convicted of marijuana possession is prevented from receiving government financial aid to pay for college, at least for one year. Yet, it has become increasingly more difficulty to pay for higher education and blacks tend to be more reliant on financial aid, so it is easy to see the damaging effect a conviction can have on blacks’ ability to be the “sort of person most of us want to be.” Among those of whom would or could not go to college, the effects are still debilitating when considering the requirement to make one’s criminal record known to employers. A marijuana conviction likely reduces the chances of employment at even the most meager jobs.
There is clear double standard that benefits whites and the affluent. Bill Clinton, for example, admitted to smoking marijuana yet he would have been barred from taking out a student loan to go to Yale had he been caught with marijuana. As Tressie Cottom noted in his article “David Brooks’ Polluted “Moral Ecology,” Brooks smoked, but prefers penalties for anyone else who does.
My support for marijuana legalization is based primarily on the disparity in the impact of marijuana prosecution, not my own interest in legally smoking it. Let me put it differently: Are we willing to equalize the consequences of marijuana possession, and target more whites who use it? It is difficult for me to picture many people advocating for a deliberate effort to equalize the arrest and prosecution rates (i.e., let’s start by raiding country clubs!). As Ej Dionne Jr. states in his article “Marijuana injustices need to end,” the notion is “absurd”, and most law makers, pundits, and average folk alike would scoff at the suggestion. This speaks volumes about the injustice in such measures that seek to encourage a “moral ecology,” as time and time again the social elites escape the effects of such statutes. Rules are for the little people.
And while the full impact of complete legalization remains to be seen, complete legalization is not the only solution. Dionne highlights an interesting alternative when he says, “we don’t need to make something illegal to discourage its use.” As an illustration he points to the finding by the Centers of Disease Control that show a decline in cigarette smoking from 42% in 1965 to 18% in 2012. Dionne continues by saying, “we have built legal fences around tobacco, using regulations to send the signals Brooks is talking about without making tobacco consumption a crime.” There is also the possibility of decriminalizing it, turning an offense into little more than a traffic ticket type of fine. That course of action, I feel, would remove a major impediment to blacks’ ability to compete fairly with whites.
The Pack Poll is a representative survey of NCSU 1,032 undergraduates. The survey was conducted over the internet using email to sample students between Nov 7-12, 2013. The response rate is 23%, and the margin of sampling error is +/-2.97%.