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What’s Really Behind Americans’ Increased Support for Marijuana Legalization? Study Sheds Light

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Americans’ views on marijuana have rapidly evolved in recent years, with a strong majority now in favor of legalization. But what’s really been behind the attitude shift?

A recent study published in the journal Social Science Research used data from national opinion polls such as the General Social Survey to test a series of hypotheses on the topic. Ultimately, many factors that are commonly attributed to shifting attitudes on social issues—such as race, gender and education—do not seem to apply to cannabis, the study found.

Rather, the post-1980 evolution of views on the issue appear to be related to changes in religious identity, a decrease in perceptions of risk toward marijuana use and changing attitudes about the criminal justice system. Here are the main findings:

—While shifting attitudes toward various issues can often be interpreted as generational shifts—with younger people replacing older ones and having their views more strongly represented—that’s not the case with marijuana. The study found that “changes in cannabis legalization support since the 1980s are largely the result of intra-cohort changes in attitudes as opposed to cohort succession,” meaning that views shifted across generations at roughly the same time.

—It does appear that an increase in the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated since 1991 has contributed to the increased support for legalization. The researchers estimated that the evolution of religious identity accounted for 12 percent of the attitude change.

(Related: A separate study recently found that religiosity accounts for some of the difference in marijuana legalization support between men and women.)

—The way that news outlets portray marijuana and its effects seems to have coincided with shifting views on legalization. “One influence that seems most plausible in contributing to changes in attitudes is an increase in the news media’s framing of cannabis as a medical issue,” the paper concluded. “[A] relatively high proportion of the change in views about the disapproval of cannabis are associated with a decrease in the percentage of people who see it as harmful.”

—Increased rates of cannabis consumption didn’t seem to have had a significant impact on how people viewed the issue, but changes in how people perceive the risk of occasional or regular marijuana use “accounted for 38 percent of the decrease in disapproving attitudes [toward legalization] over the period 2002-2014,” according to the study.

—Opposition to marijuana reform was especially strong during the Reagan era, as anti-drug rhetoric ramped up. But in the decades that followed, more Americans came to the opinion that the drug war created an excessively punitive criminal justice system. The researchers found that attitudes toward cannabis legalization started shifting “before Americans began to feel that the criminal justice system was too harsh.” But in the years since, “there could have been reciprocal effects whereby changing views in one area (e.g., criminal justice system) reinforced changing views in the other (e.g., cannabis).” All told, evolving views toward the criminal justice system accounted for 14 percent of the change in pro-legalization attitudes.

—Finally, one interesting result of the survey analysis showed that policy changes at the state level did not influence attitudes toward cannabis legalization. That is, simply residing in a state where marijuana has been legalized was not a statistically significant factor in the attitude shift. Similarly, living in a state that neighbors a legal state was not a factor either.

“This study advances our understanding of why attitudes changed through an empirical examination of a range of plausible explanations,” the study authors wrote. “As cannabis becomes legal in more places, it is likely to remain an important topic, and Americans’ views are likely to liberalize further.”

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Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

Culture

Marijuana Tourism From China To Amsterdam: Study Sheds Light On Motivations

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Marijuana use in China is strictly forbidden. In fact, when Canada legalized cannabis last year, the Chinese government sternly reminded its citizens living in or visiting the country to “please avoid contact or using marijuana.”

Yet, despite their nation’s strict views on marijuana, research shows that significant numbers of Chinese tourists are heading to Amsterdam to take part in its prolific cannabis culture. A new study published in the journal Current Issues in Tourism sheds light on some of the motivations for the cross-continental cannatourism.

The punishment for drug use of any kind in China, including marijuana, is up to 15 days in detention and mandatory rehabilitation, the study’s authors write. But the Chinese government has been known to enforce harsher sentences for other cannabis-related charges. For example, Jaycee Chan, the son of actor Jackie Chan, spent six months in a Beijing jail after police discovered more than 100 grams in his apartment.

Because Chinese citizens are “widely educated to stay away from any kind of drugs,” the study states, researchers were curious to know more about who these tourists heading to the Netherlands for cannabis really were. Between February 2014 and October 2016, they randomly approached Chinese tourists in or exiting Amsterdam coffee shops where marijuana is sold over the counter and invited them to complete a confidential questionnaire. A total of 654 surveys were collected and analyzed.

About 80 percent of respondents said they’d never tried marijuana prior to their trip to Amsterdam.

Participants were divided into three segments based on their responses: cannabis enthusiasts, diversionists/recreationists (people who were seeking pleasure or a diversion from their daily lives) and people who were simply curious about cannabis culture.

Survey responses from the first and third groups “demonstrate that Chinese drug tourists desire to ‘experience all’ and seek authenticity out of their normal daily life and society during the overseas travel,” the study authors wrote.

The largest number of tourists surveyed (almost 44 percent) fell into the category of diversionist/recreationist. In other words, they used cannabis as a way to enjoy their vacation—not unlike tourists from other countries.

“They travelled and consumed cannabis mostly for the sake of experiencing/experimenting with the local cannabis culture in Amsterdam as well as relaxation, pleasure, and to escape from stressful social environments,” the authors write.

Cannabis enthusiasts were the smallest segment of the sample. In terms of demographics, almost half of the survey respondents were women. Overall, a majority of participants reported being college-educated, under 35 years old and not married.

In a recent interview, lead study author Jun Wen discussed why Chinese tourists are especially attracted to the Netherlands.

“You can do a lot of things there that are illegal in China – gambling, paying for sexual services, and buying cannabis for recreational use,” he said. “So Chinese tourists want to go there to find a different way to relax that’s not traditional.”

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Science & Health

This Is The Best Way To Store Marijuana For The Apocalypse, According To Science

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You may want to rethink how you’re storing your marijuana stash long-term.

Many enthusiasts will tell you the best place to keep cannabis is in an air-tight container stowed somewhere cool and dark. But according to the results of a new four-year study, the freezer may actually be a better place—especially if you’re concerned about maintaining that all-important THC content.

Researchers in Italy were interested in understanding how time and various storage conditions (involving light, oxygen and temperature) affected the chemical composition of high-potency cannabis products. Past studies have also investigated this topic, but the authors of new research published in Forensic Science International last week noted that the potency of cannabis in today’s market is “extremely different” from years past.

Using six cannabis products of herbal and resin materials (which were seized by law enforcement and given to researchers to analyze), the study’s authors created 24 primary samples.

After collecting information about how much THC, CBD and CBN (that is, cannabinol, another non-intoxicating component in cannabis that occurs when THC degrades over time) each sample contained, the researchers stored the samples in four controlled conditions for a period of four years.

The testing conditions differed by light exposure (whether it was light or dark 24 hours) and storage temperature (including at room temperature, refrigerated at 4 degrees Celsius or frozen at -20 degrees Celsius). Over the span of the study period, the samples were tested 14 times.

In a finding that will likely be unsurprising to anyone who has stumbled upon an old stash of cannabis stored in a sock drawer, the study determined that the amount of THC decreased—thus increasing the amount of CBN—in the samples stored at room temperature. In the first 100 days of data gathering, the THC in the marijuana stored in both light and dark spaces at room temperature had degraded by 13 percent and 11 percent, respectively.

Meanwhile, the refrigerated cannabis did show some decline in THC and increase in CBN over time, though not nearly as pronounced as the samples kept at room temperature.

The THC content in the samples stored in below-freezing conditions, however, did not significantly change.

This finding indicates, as the authors write, “that freezing is the best storage condition to avoid the reduction of the cannabinoids content over time.”

As for CBD, the study found that the compound remained “relatively constant over time in all the considered samples.”

The authors point out that their findings could be important for forensic purposes. With their methods, they write, law enforcement may be able to figure out what the THC concentration might initially have been in degraded marijuana.

On a more basic level, the research could also help consumers better plan how to store their cannabis.

That said, with marijuana not exactly that hard to find—it’s not as if prohibition is very effective, and more states are legalizing cannabis stores in any case—most people probably won’t be seeking to intentionally store their supply for multi-year periods.

Unless, that is, you’re a prepper planning for hard times. In that case, just know that, according to this research, stuffing your stash in the freezer is best.

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Science & Health

Legal Marijuana Sales Don’t Increase Use, But Allowing Possession Does, Study Finds

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When penalties for marijuana possession are lifted, usage rates seem to increase—but that’s not the case when retail sales of cannabis are permitted. Those are the findings of a new study that seems to run contrary to a key talking point of groups that oppose legalization.

To learn how different reform policies impact consumption trends, researchers at Colorado Mesa University analyzed survey data from more than 1,400 people over the course of 17 months in Colorado, Washington and Australia. Their findings were recently published in the journal Substance Abuse: Research and Treatment.

While some prohibitionist groups have proposed simply removing penalties for possession as a preferred alternative to full commercial marijuana legalization—which they believe will create an industry incentivized to increase heavy cannabis consumption—the new study appears to undermine that position.

After Washington State instituted voter-approved legalization of cannabis consumption and possession, but before retail sales were allowed, there was a 12-22 percent spike in use among college undergraduates in the state.

However, the researchers “found no evidence” that the subsequent implementation of legal sales of recreational cannabis “influenced the number of marijuana users in Washington.”

A similar trend was observed when they looked at data from Australia. The country doesn’t allow legal cannabis sales, but after decriminalizing the plant, there was a 16 percent increase in consumption.

Because the researchers started collecting data from Colorado just three months before retail cannabis sales started, they didn’t reach a conclusion about how removing penalties for possession alone influenced consumption patterns. But the data did show that, in the year after retail sales launched, “rates of marijuana use did not significantly increase.”

The researchers said that the seemingly counterintuitive finding could interpreted a couple ways.

First, it’s possible that “the social and legal implications of legalizing recreational marijuana are stronger than accessibility and price,” they wrote. In other words, ending criminal penalties for cannabis and normalizing its consumption in a social context might lead to an increase in usage “even before it is sold to the public through legal means.”

“It is important to note, however, that it is reasonable to assume that people would be more truthful and more likely to report marijuana use after its legalization,” they wrote, referring to common study methodology that relies on consumers’ own self reports to track usage levels. “Thus, some of the increase in rates of marijuana use may be an artifact of a greater willingness to report such use, since social and legal barriers were removed by legalization.”

The other inference that can be drawn from the study is that “marijuana is easily accessed even when it is not sold in stores recreationally.” It may be easy to access prior to removal of penalties for possession, too, but legal and social barriers associated with prohibition could suppress its use—or at least lead people not to report about their consumption truthfully when asked in a survey.

All that said, the study authors emphasized that “the conclusions drawn in this commentary are based on observable patterns from correlational research, limiting conclusions of cause and effect.”

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Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.

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