Braking Down The Noise

Five Decades Into The War On Drugs, Decriminalizing Marijuana Has High Bipartisan Support

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Last week, President Biden pardoned federal offenses for marijuana possession, part of a promise he had made on the campaign trail to decriminalize weed. The order to vacate the sentences of at least 6,500 American citizens and lawful permanent residents elicited praise from some cannabis advocates, while others have said the move is only a first step at best. Some activists, especially those who highlight how enforcement of the current law disproportionately targets Black communities, said the pardon doesn’t go far enough.

But, in general, Americans agree that the country’s legislation on marijuana does need an update. According to polling conducted by Morning Consult/Politico just days before the Oct. 6 pardon, 6 in 10 American voters said weed should be legal in the U.S. That number rises to about 7 in 10 among voters under 45 (70 percent), Democrats (71 percent) and Black voters (72 percent). Even among the groups least likely to support legalizing marijuana — Republicans (47 percent) and voters 65 or over (45 percent) — close to half of respondents agreed. There’s no real divide across regions, either.

Current laws, however, do not reflect this sweeping bipartisan, universal support. The legalization of marijuana puts a spotlight on the divide between Americans and politicians, namely Republican members of Congress. Public opinion has changed drastically on this issue in the past two decades, but getting legislation to catch up with an updated national sentiment has not been easy, especially when the topic carries a century of social baggage. 

Support for relaxed weed laws hasn’t always been so widespread. When Gallup surveyed Americans on the topic in March 1972, eight months after then-President Richard Nixon declared the nation’s infamous war on drugs, only 15 percent agreed that the use of marijuana should be legal. Meanwhile, in a separate Gallup survey conducted several days prior to that, just 11 percent said that they had tried marijuana.


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By April 1977, support for legalization reached 28 percent but mostly plateaued until 2000. Since then, however, support has risen considerably. As of October 2021, 68 percent of Americans said marijuana use should be legal, and in July, 48 percent of Americans said that they had tried it. In other words, those numbers are the highest they’ve been in five decades.

While Biden’s order was popular with a wide range of politicians, it’s not the sweeping change that some Americans would like to see. For starters, not everyone has been on board, such as a handful of Republicans in Congress who have long pushed a hardline attitude against marijuana. For instance, just two weeks ago, a conservative caucus of House Republicans unveiled its new Family Policy Agenda, which suggested some sort of link between THC use and suicide in children and adolescents. And the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s classification of marijuana as a Schedule I substance, the highest tier in the agency’s hierarchy, deems it unacceptable even for medical use at the federal level, at least for now. Biden also called on the Justice Department and Health and Human Services to begin a review of marijuana’s current categorization.

Of course, the federal restrictions on marijuana use haven’t exactly held up on a regional level: Thirty-seven states, as well as Washington, D.C., and three U.S. territories have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes, while 19 states, Washington, D.C., and two territories have also done so for recreational use among adults. In other words, the federal law isn’t just out of touch with most Americans — it’s out of touch with most state legislation, too.

That said, Biden’s pardon is ahead of the curve, as most states have yet not overturned state-level possession convictions. Following the order, the president called on governors to issue similar pardons, which would be a popular move: Recent polling from YouGov found that 62 percent of Americans would back such a measure in their state. In fact, a majority of every demographic group tracked support it except Republicans (41 percent).

But Americans are nonetheless split, nearly down the middle, on whether marijuana use harms society at large. In July, 49 percent told Gallup that the impact was at least somewhat positive, while 50 percent said it was at least somewhat negative. Compared with their views on other controlled substances, though, this actually supports the idea that Americans feel positive about marijuana. For example, a whopping 75 percent of Americans say that alcohol use has at least a somewhat negative impact on society. In other words, it’s clear that sentiments among the American public are heading in a solid direction toward legalization. The question now is how long it will take for nationwide policies to reflect where the people stand.

Other polling bites

  • Roughly half of registered voters (49 percent) said they’re more motivated than usual to cast their midterm ballots next month, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking poll conducted Sept. 15-26. That split ticks up slightly among partisan voters, with 57 percent of Republicans and 52 percent of Democrats in agreement. When KFF asked voters what issue they’d most like to hear candidates discuss, a plurality brought up economic concerns (35 percent), followed by abortion or reproductive rights (15 percent) and immigration (9 percent). 
  • Despite all the buzz about critical race theory, a recent survey from USC Dornsife found that a slight majority have either never heard of CRT (36 percent) or have heard of it but don’t know what it means (15 percent). And just 4 percent said they knew enough about CRT to explain it to others. On the whole, nearly all Americans agree that certain topics should be covered in high school — like slavery (95 percent), contributions of women and people of color (94 percent) and racial inequality (86 percent). However, the consensus is less sweeping on trans rights (59 percent) and gender identity (59 percent). 
  • An equal and majority share (66 percent) of both Democrats and Republicans think the other party should have more moderate candidates, per a Sept. 27-Oct. 2 poll by YouGov for the nonprofit More in Common. But each side is less likely to agree that their own party needs moderate options: Only 32 percent of Republicans and 38 percent of Democrats say so. Meanwhile, white Americans overall (53 percent) were the most likely of any race or ethnic group to voice a need for more moderate Democrats, while Asian Americans overall (54 percent) were the most likely to say the same about the GOP. 
  • Almost half of Americans view the country’s health care system overall in a negative light, according to recent polling from Gallup that asked respondents to rank various attributes by letter grades (A, B, C, D or F). A whopping 75 percent consider the affordability of the system as either a D grade of “poor” (41 percent) or an F grade of “fail” (33 percent), which is a breakdown that doesn’t waver much along socioeconomic lines. Further, Black Americans (66 percent) and Asian Americans (64 percent) were the most likely groups to give a poor rating for getting equitable care, although women (61 percent) weren’t far behind. In fact, 55 percent of women also said that they’re not confident that their families will be able to afford the health care they need as they age, a much higher share than the 45 percent of men who agreed.

Biden approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker,1 42.6 percent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president, while 52.3 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -9.7 points). At this time last week, 42.7 percent approved and 51.5 percent disapproved (a net approval rating of -8.8 points). One month ago, Biden had an approval rating of 42.6 percent and a disapproval rating of 53.0 percent, for a net approval rating of -10.4 points.

Generic ballot

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot,2 Democrats currently lead Republicans by 1.1 points (45.8 percent to 44.8 percent). A week ago, Democrats led by 1.0 point (45.3 percent to 44.3 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Democrats by 1.2 points (45.0 percent to 43.8 percent).

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