Although President Obama thinks the very idea is hilarious, recent polls pretty consistently find that more than two-fifths of Americans support marijuana legalization. Last month's Reason-Rupe Public Opinion Survey fits that pattern, finding that 41 percent of Americans favor "the legalization of small amounts of marijuana for personal use," compared to 44 percent who oppose that policy. Support was stronger among independents and Democrats (48 percent for both) than it was among Republicans (32 percent) or Tea Party supporters (35 percent). Not surprisingly, self-identified "libertarians" were more than twice as likely to support legalization as self-identified "conservatives," with "moderates," "liberals," and "progressives" falling in between. There was not much variation between income groups or groups with different levels of education (except for those without high school diplomas, only one-third of whom favored legalization). But the gender gap on this question is striking: Forty-nine percent of men supported legalization vs. 34 percent of women. Likewise the generation gap: Only 23 percent of those 65 and older supported legalization; support was twice as high among respondents younger than 55. Religious attendance also was inversely related to support for legalization: Fifty-seven percent of respondents reporting "low" attendance were pot-tolerant, compared to 26 percent of those reporting "high" attendance. I suspect old Republican women who go to church a lot are the group least sympathetic to this cause.
A couple of caveats: Two-thirds of respondents said the government was either "involved about the right amount" or "not involved enough" with "recreational drug use," which is logically inconsistent with legalizing pot. Furthermore, the description of legalization used in the survey suggests a policy in which all penalties for possessing small quantities of pot are eliminated (as opposed to "decriminalization," which usually means treating possession as an offense on par with a traffic violation). It's not clear where the respondents thought pot smokers would be getting their marijuana, since the formulation used in the survey does not address cultivation or sales. But broader wording might not have turned people off, since other polls have found strong support for treating marijuana "like tobacco and alcohol."
The Reason-Rupe results are also consistent with the findings of other surveys on the question of medical marijuana. Sixty-nine percent of the respondents said the issue should be left to the states, which neither the Bush administration nor the Obama administration has been willing to do in practice (although Obama promised he would and even pretended to follow through on that promise). Support for a federalist approach to the issue was stronger among Tea Party supporters (76 percent) than it was among Republicans (64 percent), independents (65 percent), or Democrats (69 percent). Those numbers, combined with the Tea Party responses on the question regarding legalization for recreational purposes, suggest that the movement really does include quite a few principled federalists who may not care for marijuana but nevertheless think states should decide for themselves whether medical use will be legal within their borders. Support for that approach is about as strong among "moderates" and "independents" as it is among the general population, and it is even stronger among registered Democrats.
That pattern reinforces my point about the dubious political logic of continuing to raid medical marijuana dispensaries while declaring that complying with state law offers no protection from federal prosecution. The poll did not explore the strength of people's feelings about medical marijuana, and it's possible that the minority of independents and moderates who support the crackdown are more likely to vote based on that issue than the large majorities who say the feds should stop interfering. But I doubt that Obama's ambiguous, contradictory policy is based on that theory. Why bother promising tolerance of medical marijuana if you're not worried about the votes of people who support that policy? Why make a big show of delivering on that promise, then take it all back, such that your policy is indistinguishable from your predecessor's? The administration's handling of this issue has been so sloppy and confusing that it suggests apathy and incompetence, as opposed to a carefully considered plan to maximize votes. My guess is that Obama simply doesn't care enough about this issue or its electoral implications to rein in the drug warriors at the DEA and the Justice Department who favor the status quo.