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.”