On Politician Drug Use, Americans Say Marijuana is OK, but Cocaine is Not


While Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has survived his crack-smoking controversy (at least for now), Rep. Trey Radel of Florida has resigned from Congress after being caught buying cocaine from an undercover federal agent in October. "It is my belief that professionally I cannot fully and effectively serve as a United States Representative," said Radel in his resignation letter. If he was concerned about losing the support of his constituents, he had good reason. 

The December Reason-Rupe poll found that 85 percent of Americans would no longer support a politician they had previously supported if he/she occasionally used cocaine. Only 13 percent of poll respondents said they would still support a politician who used cocaine occasionally.

Americans are much more forgiving on marijuana use. The same Reason-Rupe poll found that a majority of Americans, 52 percent, would continue to support a politician if he or she occasionally used marijuana in his or her personal time while 43 percent would withdraw their support.

The percentage of Americans who would still support an elected official who occasionally used marijuana is roughly the same as those who support legalizing the drug (49 percent). Given that few Americans favor legalizing cocaine, their reaction to Trey Radel is hardly surprising.  Although it's worth pointing out that while 13 percent said they'd continue to support their elected official if they smoked cocaine, only 4 percent say the drug should be legalized.

The public's lack of tolerance for cocaine use by their elected officials cuts across party lines but partisan differences emerge when the drug in question is marijuana. Majorities of Democrats (58 percent) and independents (54 percent) would continue to support a politician whom they previously supported if he/she used marijuana occasionally while only 41 percent of Republicans would do the same. Instead, 54 percent of Republicans would retract their support if they discovered their favored politician was caught using marijuana.

As previous Reason-Rupe poll results haveshown, younger Americans are considerably more tolerant of drug use in general, so not surprisingly they are more likely than older Americans to say they would continue to support a politician whom they previously endorsed if he or she used marijuana occasionally. For instance, 73 percent of 18-24 year olds would continue to support their favored politicians caught with pot, compared to 35 percent of seniors.

Similarly, those with higher levels of education also are more likely to continue supporting their favored politicians who smoke marijuana. While 48 percent of those with high school diplomas or less would continue to support their favored candidate, nearly two-thirds of post-graduates would do the same.

However, even young people and post-grads make a sharp distinction between marijuana and cocaine. For instance, 65 percent of those under 35 would continue to support a politician who used marijuana from time to time while just 18 percent would continue to support a politician who used cocaine. By comparison, 44 percent of Americans ages 55 and over would continue to support an official who used marijuana while just six percent would continue to support a politician who used cocaine. Similarly for education, while 64 percent of post grads would continue to endorse marijuana-smoking politicians, only 14 percent would do the same for a cocaine user.

Nationwide telephone poll conducted Dec 4-8 2013 interviewed 1011 adults on both mobile (506) and landline (505) phones, with a margin of error +/- 3.7%. Princeton Survey Research Associates International executed the nationwide Reason-Rupe survey. Columns may not add up to 100% due to rounding. Full poll results, detailed tables, and methodology found here. Sign up for notifications of new releases of the Reason-Rupe poll here.