Poll Finds Most Americans Support Treating Marijuana Like Alcohol; Even More Think the Feds Should Let States Do So


As the Obama administration mulls its response to marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington, the latest Reason-Rupe Public Opinion Survey finds that most Americans think the federal government should not interfere. Asked if the feds should arrest people who use marijuana in the states that have legalized it, 72 percent of respondents said no. More strikingly, by a margin of 2 to 1, the respondents said the federal government should not arrest newly legal growers or sellers either. President Obama has said there are no plans to go after pot smokers, which the federal government almost never does anyway, but he has not said how state-licensed suppliers will be treated.

Opposition to federal interference was even stronger than support for legalization. While 47 percent favored "legalizing marijuana for recreational use" and 53 percent said "the government should treat marijuana the same as alcohol," 68 percent said the feds should leave state-legal growers alone and 64 percent said the same about state-legal sellers. These results indicate that some people who oppose marijuana legalization nevertheless believe the choice should be left to the states, as a consistent federalist would. Reflecting that tendency, most Republicans and self-identified conservatives supported marijuana prohibition, but most also said the federal government should not try to impose that policy on Colorado and Washington. These findings are similar to those of a CBS News poll conducted last November, except that poll found even stronger federalist preferences among Republicans, 65 percent of whom said states should determine whether marijuana is legal within their borders, compared to 55 percent of Democrats, even though Democrats were more likely to say pot should be legal (51 percent vs. 27 percent). Over all, 59 percent of respondents in that poll said the feds should mind their own business, compared to around 66 percent (averaging the responses for growers and sellers) in the Reason-Rupe poll.

It's interesting that more people (a majority, in fact) supported treating marijuana like alcohol, which means legalizing production and sale, than supported the legalization of recreational use, which could be interpreted as applying only to possession of small amounts. A 2010 A.P. poll generated similar results: While 34 percent supported "legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use," 56 percent said regulations for marijuana should be either "the same" as regulations for alcohol or "less strict." These counterintuitive differences probably reflect the power of the alcohol comparison, which was emphasized by the campaigns for Colorado's Amendment 64, dubbed the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act of 2012, and Washington's Initiative 502, which assigns regulation of marijuana stores to the state liquor control board. Both initiatives won by about 10 percentage points. People who favor pot prohibition in the abstract may change their minds when confronted by the irrational legal distinction between alcohol and marijuana. A 2012 Public Policy Polling survey commissioned by the Marijuana Policy Project found that a plurality of Americans (45 percent) believe marijuana is safer than alcohol, and I suspect that most of the 12 percent who said they were not sure would say it is at least no more dangerous.

As surveys generally find, support for legalizing marijuana in the Reason-Rupe poll was stronger among Democrats (57 percent of whom said it should be treated like alcohol) than among Republicans (35 percent), among progressives (72 percent) and libertarians (86 percent) than among conservatives (39 percent), and among people younger than 65 (whose support ranged from 53 percent among 45-to-54-year-olds to 58 percent among 35-to-44-year-olds) than among people of retirement age (41 percent). The generational divide is clearly not just a matter of people getting more conservative as they get older, since overall support for legalization has been rising more or less steadily since the 1960s (with a dip in the '80s), breaking through 50 percent in the Gallup poll for the first time last year. Allowing legalization experiments like those in Colorado and Washington to proceed, as a large majority of Americans want, is apt to accelerate this trend.