Late last month, the Marijuana Policy Project commissioned Public Policy Polling to survey Rhode Island voter attitudes toward marijuana policy. The results are in, and the numbers indicate that Rhode Islanders from both sides of the aisle are clearly aware that marijuana prohibition is failed policy, and they are ready for change.
A majority of Rhode Islanders appear to be fed up with the current marijuana prohibition. Of the 714 voters polled, 52% would like to see all penalties for personal possession and use of marijuana removed and marijuana treated in a manner similar to alcohol, where it would be taxed, regulated, and sold in state-licensed stores to adults over the age of 21. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the idea received bipartisan support and was backed by 55% of Democrats and 54% of Republicans. Legislation spearheaded by MPP to establish such a system will be introduced in Rhode Island this session.
When Mason-Dixon Polling and Research asked the exact same question in 2008, only 41% of 625 voters surveyed supported regulated legalization of marijuana. That’s an increase of 11 percentage points among all voters in less than three years. The ’08 poll showed majority support among Democrats (52%) but strong opposition among Republican voters, with only 26% supporting and 66% opposing the idea just 33 months ago. This means we’ve seen support more than double among Rhode Island Republicans. So what’s going on here?
Although it may seem odd at first, I’ve long argued that replacing the marijuana prohibition with a legalized and regulated marijuana market is an issue perfectly teed up for true conservatives. Ending the marijuana prohibition, and to a greater extent the “War on Drugs,” would massively decrease the size and scope of the federal government and restore police power to the states. Massive federal programs that consume enormous amounts of tax dollars while failing to reduce use and abuse of marijuana would be dismantled, and the oft complained of “nanny state” – the government telling responsible adult citizens what they can and cannot do – would be whittled away at. But can this enormous increase in support for a regulated marijuana market among Rhode Island Republicans be attributed solely to the respondents tapping into their true conservative cores?
While the questions posed to voters were identical in 2008 and 2012, the polls were conducted by different firms. To see if this could be responsible for some of the increase, I reached out to Tom Jensen at Public Policy Polling to get his take. “Automated polls [like the one conducted by PPP] tend to get more honest responses from people about sensitive issues than live interview [polls] like Mason-Dixon conducts. People might not be comfortable telling another human on the line that they think marijuana use should be legal, but they’re fine with pushing a button to express that same opinion.” So there is an argument that some of the increase in support was actually there all along, but it was quiet support. This kind of support may be stifled in part by voters’ reluctance to tell a live human being that they support something that could be perceived as taboo.
But I don’t think the live vs. automated distinction can account for the entire increase, and neither does Mr. Jensen. “I think with the tough economy and all the hard cuts state governments across the country have had to make over the last few years, voters are open to new ways to generate revenue, like legalizing and regulating marijuana use, in a way that they might not have been in more prosperous times.” Faced with the current economy, the typical American voter is given two options: cut popular and necessary programs or raise taxes. Neither of these options seems politically popular for members of either major party. So it shouldn’t be surprising to see people from both sides of the political spectrum supporting a proposal that would raise an untold amount of revenue while keeping intact support for current programs and not raising personal income taxes.
Regardless of the reasoning, it is clear that support for regulated legalization of marijuana is increasing and increasing fast. And this phenomenon is not limited to just Rhode Island.
In October of 2011, Gallup conducted their semi-annual “Do you think the use of marijuana should be made legal, or not?” poll. They have been polling the American public on this question, off and on, since 1969. It is important to note that Gallup does not ask about a regulated market, just if marijuana should be legal. It’s also important to keep in mind that Gallup’s results are based on telephone interviews, so if Tom Jensen is correct, we’d expect that the actual support among the public is some degree higher than the results show. With that in mind, it’s incredibly telling that for the first time since 1969, Gallup found that 50% of the American public agrees that marijuana should be legal while 46% think it should remain illegal. Additionally, plurality support for a regulated and legalized market is found in both Colorado and Washington; both states will be voting on ballot measures asking if marijuana should be legalized and regulated come November.
Whatever the reasons may be, the public at large – and Rhode Island voters in particular – have come around to the idea of regulated legalization of marijuana, and why shouldn’t they? Marijuana is demonstrably safer than alcohol and tobacco – both of which are legal yet regulated. Responsible marijuana legalization and regulation will create entire industries worth of jobs, allow federal and state governments to collected needed revenue from responsible sales, and keep marijuana out of the hands of minors through thorough regulations. We’ve got the public behind us, it’s time the lawmakers open their eyes.
(NOTE: PPP also polled Rhode Island voter attitudes toward Rhode Island’s medical marijuana program and a proposal to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by replacing the criminal penalty with a civil citation. Both of these enjoyed very strong support. Click here for full poll results.)