By Jacob Sullum
Over at The Huffington Post, Reasoncontributor Ryan Grim argues that press coverage of a recent Roper/CNBC poll understated the public's support for marijuana legalization. The news stories highlighted the fact that 55 percent of respondents said they opposed "the complete legalization of the use of marijuana for any purpose," while only 33 percent said they supported that policy. But when the respondents were asked to think about the legal treatment of alcohol, 56 percent said the regulations for marijuana should either be the same or less strict. Coincidentally, that's the same as the percentage of Californians who recently told SurveyUSA they support an initiative on the November ballot that would legalize pot.
I'm aware of only one other nationwide poll that has found majority support for legalizing pot (as opposed to decriminalizing possession of small amounts): a May 2009 Zogby poll in which 52 percent of respondents backed the idea. As I explained at the time, the sample (which was"weighted to match the 2008 presidential outcome—54 percent Obama voters and 46 percent McCain supporters"), may have been biased in favor of reform, and the setup to the question was slanted against prohibition. The new poll does not seem to have either of those problems.
Here's a result that should interest those who think playing up the tax revenue to be gained by legalizing marijuana is a good strategy: When the respondents were asked how they would feel "if state governments were to tax the sale of marijuana and use it to pay for state programs and services," their support fell quite dramatically, from 33 percent to 14 percent. I myself am not very fond of the tax argument (or of the "programs and services" likely to be funded by new tax revenue), so I rather like that finding. But I have to admit that the 33 percent favoring "complete legalization" may have included a lot of pot smokers who don't want to pay taxes.