The three major national polls in America are increasingly converging on one point: Marijuana legalization is very popular in the US.
The latest finding, from the recently released General Social Survey by NORC at the University of Chicago, shows that 61 percent of people supported marijuana legalization in 2018. That’s up from 57 percent in 2016 and 31 percent in 2000 — a rapid shift in public opinion in less than two decades.
The other two big national surveys on the topic have found similar results. Gallup put support for marijuana legalization at 66 percent in 2018, up from from 60 percent in 2016 and 31 percent in 2000. Pew put it at 62 percent in 2018, up from 57 percent in 2016 and 31 percent in 2000.
This is far more popular than a lot of politicians who oppose legalization. For reference, President Donald Trump currently holds a 45 percent approval rating in Gallup’s tracker — an unusually high number for him, but also roughly in line with where Barack Obama’s approval numbers were around this point in his presidency. It’s also more than either Trump or Obama got in elections, with Trump getting 46 percent of the vote in 2016 — losing to Hillary Clinton in popular vote but not the Electoral College — and Obama getting 53 percent in 2008.
It’s also fairly high relative to other issues. Before same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide by the US Supreme Court in 2015, it had 56 percent support in the General Social Survey, 60 percent in Gallup’s survey, and 57 percent in Pew’s. The rapid shift in public opinion for marriage equality is one reason the Supreme Court likely felt comfortable legalizing it. Yet it was lower than support for marijuana legalization today.
One caveat: Support for legalization seems to be lower if you specify recreational marijuana. A recent survey from YouGov, for example, found that just 50 percent of Americans back recreational marijuana legalization, versus 31 percent opposition. That could be an outlier, but it could suggest that some of the support picked up by the General Social Survey, Gallup, and Pew reflects support for medical marijuana, not full legalization.
Still, the dramatic turnaround in public opinion helps explain why the great majority of expected and announced Democratic presidential candidates support marijuana legalization. And it explains why more states — now 10 states and Washington, DC — have legalized pot to varying degrees through a ballot initiative or legislature.
Supporters of legalization argue that it eliminates the harms of marijuana prohibition: the hundreds of thousands of arrests around the US, the racial disparities behind those arrests, and the billions of dollars that flow from the black market for illicit marijuana to drug cartels that then use the money for violent operations around the world. All of this, legalization advocates say, will outweigh any of the potential downsides — such as increased cannabis use — that might come with legalization.
Opponents, meanwhile, claim that legalization will enable a huge marijuana industry that will market the drug irresponsibly. They point to America’s experiences with the alcohol and tobacco industries, which have built their financial empires in large part on some of the heaviest consumers of their products. This could result in far more people using pot, even if it leads to negative health consequences.
Based on the latest polling, supporters of legalization increasingly outnumber opponents.
For more on marijuana legalization, read Vox’s explainer.