National support for marijuana legalization has fallen seven points since 2013 but still has the support of a majority of Americans, according to new polling released by Gallup. The drop comports with a similar dip in polling conducted by Public Religion Research Institute this year, and to a lesser extent with numbers coming out of Pew.
Opponents and supporters of legalization are trying to square these numbers against the results of the midterm elections, when legalization measures passed by healthy margins in Alaska, Oregon and D.C. "This poll shows that legalization is far from inevitable and the fight to stop it is far from over," said Kevin Sabet of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a group opposing legalization.
Tom Angell of the pro-legalization Marijuana Majority took the long view: "The long-term polling trend from Gallup and other firms clearly shows that legalization is a majority-support issue that's becoming more and more mainstream over time."
Researchers say the drop in support is significant, but it doesn't necessarily change their views on the overall trajectory of the legalization debate. "Tuesday night's results - in an off-year electorate - don't suggest any great loss of momentum for the pro-pot side," said Mark A. R. Kleiman of the University of California, Los Angels.
"Anything is possible, including a reversal/roll-back/backlash, but my single best prediction would be that a large proportion of the U.S. states would be 'wet' within 10 years," said Jonathan Caulkins, of Carnegie Mellon University. "I think that on November 10th, 2016, or perhaps Jan 16th, 2017 to allow some time to digest the election results, is the next time we’ll be in a really good position to meaningfully revise our guesses."
Gallup's 2013 reading of 58 percent in support of legalization was an outlier among other national polls conducted at the same time, which found numbers more in the lower-50s. So there's a chance that this year's decline is simply a correction of an estimate that was previously high.
Gallup notes that news out of Colorado may also be a factor in the declining support: "Colorado has been in the news over the sale of marijuana-infused edibles -- everything from brownies to gummy bears -- and the risk they pose to children, possibly sparking public concern."
Denver police were warning parents about the dangers of marijuana in Halloween candy when the poll was in the field, drawing national attention and possibly contributing to the drop in support. But in reality there hasn't been a single instance of trick-or-treaters sickened by pot candy this year.
According to the latest numbers, support for legalization is highest in Western and Eastern states, and about 10 points lower in the Midwest and South. Support is about 7 percentage points higher among men than women. Similar to what exit polls have shown, the poll finds majority support for legalization among every age group except seniors.
Researchers at the Public Religion Research Institute point out that while it's tempting to draw parallels between marijuana legalization and gay marriage, the two issues are driven by very different motivations among the public. According to research director Dan Cox, "In every poll we've asked more Americans say smoking marijuana is morally acceptable than morally wrong."
Robert Jones, PRRI's president, adds: "On sexuality issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, moral objections are a primary driver of attitudes. But we have seen what might be called a libertarian impulse among a segment of Americans who have personal moral objections [to marijuana legalization] but nevertheless support the legality of these issues as a matter of policy."
We saw some evidence of this in Oregon, where the legalization campaign focused on a message of harm reduction aimed at skeptics of marijuana legalization. The success there makes it likely that advocates will be honing a similar pitch for states considering legalization in 2016.