As we saw in the 2018 midterms, U.S. states are continuing to legalize marijuana. A ballot initiative legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes passed decisively in Michigan, making it the 10th state to do so over the past six years. Meanwhile, in Missouri and Utah, citizens voted to legalize marijuana for medical purposes, which 23 states now allow.
While Americans overall are becoming more supportive of marijuana legalization, public opinion has an unusual “reverse gender gap.” On many issues, women are more liberal than men. But men are more likely than women to support legalizing marijuana. Our new research helps explain why.
Here’s how we did our research
We analyzed a March 2013 Pew Research Center survey that included questions about attitudes toward marijuana and self-reported marijuana use. These data help identify factors that do and do not explain this reverse gender gap.
One factor that didn’t matter was parenthood. We expected mothers to be less likely to support legalizing marijuana, out of a desire to protect their children. Indeed, earlier studies showed that parents were less likely to support legalizing marijuana than others. But neither mothers nor fathers were more likely to oppose marijuana legalization than people without children.
One factor that did matter was women’s greater religiosity. Even though women are more liberal than men, women attend church more frequently and are more likely to identify as “born again.” Because religious people are more opposed to marijuana legalization, factoring in religiosity narrows but does not eliminate the reverse gender gap. (Women’s religiosity also helps explain their greater opposition to extramarital sex and pornography.)
A second factor is what’s known as the “risky white men hypothesis.” Researchers have shown that men, and white men in particular, tend to accept risk more than others. This helps explain the gender gap on a number of environmental, health, science, and technology-related issues. For example, white women and men and women of color worry more about the consequences of global warming and nuclear power. We found that white men are more likely to support legalizing marijuana than either white women or men of color, with women of color offering the least support for marijuana legalization. Still, taking account of race and gender did not eliminate the reverse gender gap, either.
Ultimately, what best explains the gender gap in marijuana attitudes is the gender gap in marijuana use. Men (all men, not just white men) report using marijuana more often than women. Once marijuana use is taken into account, there is no gender gap in attitudes toward gender gap in marijuana legalization.
Why do men use marijuana more than women?
Research in sociology and psychology has found that men are more likely to engage in deviant and risk-taking behavior, although scholars debate why this is — whether biology, peer influence, different conceptions of morality, or something else.
Given these findings, we think the gender gap in support for marijuana legalization will eventually start to close. Over the past several decades, both women and men have become more likely to support legalizing marijuana at roughly the same pace, which has kept the size of the gender gap fairly constant. But as marijuana becomes legal in more and more states, using it will likely be considered less risky or deviant and also less immoral. And as Democratic elites increasingly favor more liberal marijuana policies, this will help push Democrats in the electorate, who are disproportionately women, toward greater support as well.
The result will likely be a consensus on marijuana legalization that increasingly transcends both partisanship and gender.
Laurel Elder is professor of political science and coordinator of Women & Gender Studies at Hartwick College in New York.
Steven Greene (@hankgreene) is professor of political science at North Carolina State University.