If Gallup Says Most Americans Want to Legalize Marijuana, Gallup Must Be Unreliable


Senate Judiciary Committee

At the International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Denver last week, many attendees were excited about the recent Gallup poll finding that 58 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana. Writing at The Huffington Post, anti-pot activist Kevin Sabet tries to piss on this parade, but his aim is not so good. Sabet cites "at least three major problems with using Gallup as a reliable marker for marijuana attitudes in the U.S." Let's consider them one at a time:

1) "The poll asked about marijuana use, not sales and production." That's true, but surveys that ask about legalizing the marijuana business get similar results. In a Reason-Rupe survey last January, for example, 53 percent of respondents said "the government should treat marijuana the same as alcohol." In a 2010 A.P.-CNBC poll, 56 percent of respondents said regulations for marijuana should be either the same as or less strict than regulations for alcohol. A 2011 YouGov/Economist poll found a similar level of support (58 percent) for treating marijuana like alcohol. That is precisely how the successful legalization measures in Colorado and Washington, which attracted around 55 percent of the vote in both states, were described. Even in Texas, a recent Public Policy Polling survey found that 58 percent of respondents either "somewhat" or "strongly" supported "changing Texas law to regulate and tax marijuana similarly to alcohol." As I noted a few weeks ago, the appeal of the alcohol model is so strong that legalizing the commercial production and distribution of marijuana counterintuitively can attract more support than merely legalizing use. In the Reason-Rupe survey, only 47 percent of respondents favored "legalizing marijuana for recreational use," while 53 percent thought marijuana should be treated like alcohol.

2) "Gallup has always shown more support for legalization than other polls, and there's reason to think it may be an outlier." That first statement is not accurate. In 2010, for example, Gallup found 46 percent support for marijuana legalization; A Newsweek poll and an ABC News/Washington Post poll that year got similar results: 45 percent and 48 percent, respectively. In 2001 and 2003, Gallup found that 34 percent of Americans favored legalization; a 2002 CNN/Time poll got the same result. And as Sabet himself notes (via a quote from The Guardian's Harry Enten), Angus Reid during the last few years has found stronger support for legalization than Gallup has. So it clearly is not true that "Gallup has always shown more support for legalization than other polls." What about this year? At least three 2013 surveys put support for legalization above 50 percent: Gallup (58 percent), Reason-Rupe (53 percent), and Pew (52 percent). Enten mentions two others that did not find majority support: Fox News (46 percent) and the Public Religion Research Institute (45 percent). So according to most of these polls (three out of five), most Americans support legalization.

3) "The poll had a small sample size of only about 1000 respondents." The surveys by Fox News and the Public Religion Research Institute, which Sabet seems to consider more reliable, used samples of 900 and 1,000, respectively. While Gallup's results supposedly are compromised by its "small sample," the same apparently is not true of the surveys that yielded results more congenial to Sabet's cause.  

We obviously are not at the point where polls consistently find majority support for legalizing marijuana. But that seems to be the direction in which we are moving, given the generational divide on this issue. In the Gallup poll, 67 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds favored legalization, compared to 45 percent of respondents 65 and older—the only age group that was mostly opposed to legalization. 

Sabet concedes "there is no doubt that marijuana legalization enjoys more support than it did a few years ago." He attributes that change to the machinations of "billionaire marijuana smoker Peter Lewis," who "has spent millions convincing Americans that marijuana legalization will bring 'money for new schools!' and 'safer roads!' and 'no more drug cartels!' if passed." Sabet seems to think you can persuade people of anything as long as you spend enough money. But if that were true, the federal government, which has vastly greater resources than Peter Lewis, would not be losing this argument.

In any case, pro-legalization philanthropy during the last few years cannot possibly explain the long-term arc of public opinion on this issue. According to Gallup's numbers, "Public support for legalization more than doubled in the 1970s, growing to 28%. It then plateaued during the 1980s and 1990s before inching steadily higher since 2000, reaching 50% in 2011." This trend does not correspond to giving by pot-smoking billionaires, but it does correspond pretty well to rising familiarity with marijuana, which has fatally undermined the government's credibility on this subject.

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  1. Poll results are only as reliable as their symmetry with my agenda.

    1. In other Poll News I’m starting one to determine if I should continue to work or get drunk and hang out in a strip club ’til 2.

      1. Only work until you have enough money to hang out in the strip club until 2. The dancers hate it when you don’t tip.

        1. Clocking out..

          1. Tell Destiny and Candy I said hey.

            1. I’ll just call you Cinnamon.

  2. “The poll asked about marijuana use, not sales and production.”

    Production!? It’s a plant. You put a seed in the ground and water it, and hope that armed Federal agents don’t show up to destroy it. This isn’t meth. There are no RVs with dangerous chemicals. It is a fucking plant, you jackboot scumbag.

    1. Clearly the answer is to legalize use, and further criminalize sale and growth.

      Then it will be the Volstead Act all over again…

    2. And if it can’t be sold or grown where do people get any to smoke? Do people actually think these things through before answering the polls or do they only poll morons?

  3. In the huffpost piece he claims that marijuana vending machines are a staple in Washington. I want to know where I can find one of these wonderful things.

    He also says there are ‘childrens candies’ when they are obviously not ‘childrens’ candies but are mostly used by patients who can’t smoke.

    1. Wait, what? He claims there are MJ vending machines in Washington State? AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

      Does…does he even care about sounding retarded? I guess not, he writes for HuffPo.

      1. Hey man, R Balko writes for HuffPost and he’s A-OK.

      2. You should verify facts before you laugh. The DEA has even confiscated on of the cannabis vending machine and it’s on display at the Museum of Jack Booted Thugs in northern Virginia.

        Oh, your fingerprint has to be on file before you can use one.

  4. Everyone knows the polls are biased, particularly when they don’t show what we know to be true (as in 2008 when everyone I know was supporting Ron Paul, and he polled at 5 to 8 percent.)

    If the polls show now that Americans support legalizing marijuana when every politician of both major parties knows that people are scared of drugs, it must mean the Kochtopus wants us all to get stoned so the corporashunz they run can pay [LOWER] taxes and pollute the environment, turning the Earth into a dry, hot, arid wasteland, with all of our coastal cities underwater and plagued by constant hurricanes and record rainfall from the SUV-driven global warming.

    1. Everyone you know? You don’t get out much, do you.

  5. Sabet first received notice in California when at age 15, he publicly blasted the conservative-libertarian wing of the Orange County school board for refusing to accept federal dollars for after school anti-drug programs aimed at underprivileged students.

    Sounds like a real fun dude.

    1. If you’re a killjoy douchebag activist at 15, just rename yourself Buzz Killington and then preferably off yourself.

    2. Sounds like a bigger buzzkill than Buzz Killington

      1. PWN’D

  6. Sullum, that was too delicious.

    Can we get you on Bloggingheads to have a friendly chat with Sabet? Or maybe an intramural scrimmage with M. Kleiman?

    I love to watch fallacious arguments exposed to the harsh light of logic.

  7. Billionaires and grass roots efforts helped. The internet helped. But mainly those who grew up before marijuana use took off in this country have been dying off and being replaced by people who in most cases have at least tried it and who are in most cases for legalization.

    According to the federal government’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 42% of all Americans 12 and older have smoked pot. But if you dig deeper into their numbers and remove the minors and those over 65, over half of those who remain have smoked pot, over half of all adults under 65. Every day almost 10,000 Baby Boomers hit the age of 65, and every year a couple of million older seniors either die or become to old and sick to vote or to be bothered with polls. The oldest Baby Boomers will turn 68 next year and a large minority of these new seniors have smoked pot. A strong majority of those behind them who came of age in the 1970’s have done it, and of course a lot of young people try it each year. For the last several decades over half of all young people have tried it before they hit thirty.

    Money may not have been the main factor up until now, but now it’s really going to help raise voter awareness and get people to the polls. It’s going to roll in now too because now this is no longer a long shot. Millions of dollars wouldn’t have made a difference twenty years ago. It would have been a bad investment. Now donors big and small are likely to see their dollars turned into results.

    1. What’s funny that my father, a physician, smoked hash oil in tobacco cigs in Europe in the 1930s, then tried a joint in the 1990s, and never AFAIK in between.

  8. Great article……..Sabet is the biggest fraud…….he has the comments disabled on any site he posts his propaganda on…. ie huffington post and CSM………he does this because people like me and this author call him on his lies……..he doesnt care about anyone but himself and as long as the pharmaceutical checks keep coming he’ll keep spouting his fear mongering propaganda………

  9. “1) “The poll asked about marijuana use, not sales and production.” ”

    Doesn’t “use” of a product presuppose its production and sale? It is pretty hard to use a product if it can neither be produced nor sold.

    Can’t there be at least one pot Prohibitionist who can offer an argument that doesn’t cause me to double over with laughter?

    1. Yes, but there are plenty of products & services that are illegal to sell but legal to buy & use.

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