A new Gallup poll shows that public support for legalizing the possession of marijuana has now hit a record-high 50%, up from 46% last year [HT: Tom Angell of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition]. Forty-six percent still oppose legalization. This continues a longstanding trend under which support for legalization has gradually but consistently risen from 12% in 1970 to today’s figure.
Moreover, the trend towards increasing public support for legalization is likely to continue. Like previous data, the new Gallup poll shows that support for legalization is higher the younger the respondents are. Some 62% of people age 18-29 support legalization, compared to 31% of those 65 and over. As I discussed in this post, this is mostly a generational effect, under which members of later generations are consistently more likely to support legalization than their elders. It is not a cohort effect, under which people support legalization when young but tend to change their minds as they age. Every age group in the Gallup survey is substantially more likely to support legalization than the one immediately older. Even the 50-64 group supports legalization at a 49% rate. Moreover, the longterm trend in aggregate opinion also reinforces the idea that we are witnessing a generation effect. If it was just a cohort effect, we should not see an increase in overall support for legalization over time. Indeed, opinion should have trended the other way, since the average age of the population is today considerably higher than in 1970.
Unfortunately, the new poll continues to show that self-described conservatives are among those least likely to support legalization (34%). I made the conservative case against the War on Drugs here, here, and here. Check out also William F. Buckley’s classic article on the subject. As he put it, “it is outrageous to live in a society whose laws tolerate sending young people to life in prison because they grew, or distributed, a dozen ounces of marijuana.”
To avoid confusion, I am not suggesting that marijuana legalization is a good idea merely because public opinion increasingly supports it. I think majority opinion is wrong about a great many things, in part because of the influence of political ignorance. Rather, the trend in public opinion is important because it increase the likelihood that legalization will become politically viable.
Obviously, majority opinion is not the only factor influencing drug policy. A lot of organized interest groups benefit from the War on Drugs, including prison guard unions, construction firms that build prisons, various government contractors, and many law enforcement agencies for whom it generates funding. Nonetheless, public opinion does have a substantial impact of its own. If we get to the point where 60 or 70% of the public supports legalization, I predict that the status quo is likely to become politically untenable even in spite of interest group lobbying. And, if present trends continue, we might well reach 60% support within the next 10-12 years.