federal prosecution of medical marijuana dispensariesTue Jun 26, 2012 07:3318.104.22.168A blow to decriminalisation: in 2008, Barack Obama said federal prosecution of medical marijuana dispensaries would cease; that hasn't happened. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty
The blogosphere has been abuzz in recent weeks over whether President Obama should legalize marijuana. Advocates argue that polls say a majority of Americans are in favor of allowing adults to be in possession of small amounts of marijuana. They further believe that coming out in favor of legalizing cannabis could result in more votes for Obama in the 2012 election.
But are these claims true? And is there any chance Obama will actually sing the praises of the doobie? There are three key factors to consider.
First, polling does show a rapid rise in support for the legalization of marijuana in the past 20 years, but a majority probably don't support it. It's not hard to look at this chart from Gallup and see the trend.
Americans are growing more accepting of the idea that pot should be made legal. Gallup's last poll shows that support has passed the 50% threshold. Other pollsters have also recorded a rise since the 1970s. To some, that might say the majority of Americans are now cool with pot. I'm not so sure.
Most polls over the past three years are hovering around the 44-45% mark for marijuana legalization. There does seem to be a slight uptick recently, but that probably has more to do with which pollsters have been tracking opinion on this lately.
Angus-Reid polled in 2012, and it is one of the few pollsters that determined that a majority of Americans does support legalization of weed. They show, however, no clear trend – with 53%, 52%, 55%, and 52% in favor of legalization since 2009. In contrast, the CBS News poll in the five polls since 2009 has pegged those in favor of marijuana legalization at 41%, 31%, 41%, 44%, and 40%, with that last percentage coming in late 2011. The ABC/Washington Poll found 46% of Americans supporting the legal position in 2009, and again in 2010. Pew found a rise from 41% to 45% from 2010 to 2011, but that is not a majority and the difference in the results is statistically insignificantly.
It should also be noted that some of these polls use slightly different wording, such as adding phrases like "small amounts" and "personal use", but that alone does not seem to account for the differences between polls.
Second, history tells us that the legalization of weed, as an issue, will probably not move voters. One question I ask myself when determining whether a policy position will make a difference in most people's vote is "you have two kids you're putting through school and finances are tight, so do you really care about X issue?" For the life of me, I cannot think that most people would say yes to the question of legalizing marijuana.
About 7% of Americans 18 years and older (about 16 million people), currently smoke marijuana, though you might argue that this percentage is a little low because of an inability to conduct reliable research. Of that 7% of Americans, only between 3% and 4% of them – about 500,000 to 650,000 people – are actually arrested for possession annually. At most, that's about 0.5% of the American electorate from 2008.
Folks, that's just not a very large piece of the pie. There are probably plenty of swing voters smoking weed, but they know that there just is very little chance of them getting arrested for it.
There are no polls asking if someone is more likely to vote for a candidate if they supported legalizing cannabis, but that's probably because no pollster actually thinks it will.
Let's use a controversial issue like same-sex marriage as a proxy. Americans were not more likely to vote for George W Bush because he supported a ban on same-sex marriage in 2004. Support for Obama has not changed because of his support for it now. Americans just won't make up their mind for a presidential election on these kinds of issues.
We also know that single issues like marijuana usually don't move people who didn't vote before to go out and vote now. Ballot initiatives in presidential years only raise turnout by 0.7%. The age group of 18-29 year-olds, who are 2.5 times more likely to use cannabis, were not a larger percentage of the California electorate in 2010 compared to the previous midterm election, despite a legalize marijuana proposition being on the ballot. Voters also said that the proposition was not the reason they came out and voted.
Third, there's no sign that President Obama wants to legalize marijuana.
We always knew that Obama took relatively liberal positions on same-sex relations and supported the Dream Act. That's why it wasn't a surprise that he came out in favor of gay marriage, or now has issued an order that children of undocumented immigrants may apply for work permits. On the other hand, the president said less than two months ago on Jimmy Fallon:
"We're not going to have legalized weed anytime soon."
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