On Marijuana Legalization, The Seed Has Been Planted

Submitted by John Fairbank

As the effort to reform America’s marijuana laws broadens, understanding the evolving nature of public opinion on the issue becomes more important.  Having provided decades of polling for drug policy reform advocates, including the successful marijuana legalization ballot measure campaigns in both Oregon and Washington, D.C. in 2014 as well as for successful efforts to liberalize marijuana regulations in numerous California cities, FM3 has an extensive library of research on public opinion toward marijuana.  This body of research - as well as a wide range of public polling on the issue – highlights a number of clear demographic differences in support for marijuana policy reform.

The simplest and starkest dichotomy on the issue of marijuana reform involves age.  Support for legalizing marijuana peaks among Millennials and hits its lowest point among the oldest of senior citizens.  Rarely have we seen an issue with such a clear-cut age differential – a fact that has obvious ramifications for future marijuana reform campaigns around the country.  In California, for example, where Proposition 64 appears primed for passage on November 8th (support has been hovering in the high 50s), FM3’s research has shown the following age distribution of support for the measure.


Table 1:
California Proposition 64—Legalization of Marijuana
Support for Measure by Age

Age Category

Percent Supporting Prop. 64








Though we can only speculate whether the pro-legalization views of the young will persist as they age, or if they will instead adopt a more skeptical perspective as they form families and temper their own behavior, current polling data suggests that the reform side would appear to have the upper hand.  When it comes to marijuana reform, middle-aged Americans are more similar to their younger compatriots than they are to voters over 65.  In the short-term, however, this generational divide has clear political implications, particularly with regards to voter turnout.  While marijuana reform initiatives tend to be able to generate more interest and participation than other kinds of ballot measures, the fact remains that the youngest voters often turn out only for presidential elections.  So while November 2020 may well prove to be even more promising for marijuana reform than November 2016, it’s entirely possible – perhaps even likely – that every election in between may be less so.

The wide generational disparity on marijuana reform is accompanied by the usual ideological/partisan divide.  Most Democrats and liberals support legalization, and most conservatives and Republicans oppose it, though at levels that are nowhere near their basic partisan leanings when it comes to electoral politics.  Moderates and independents lie in the middle, though in most states they appear to hold views closer to those on the left than those on the right.  Despite their strong and growing support for left-of-center candidates and issues, the Latino community can be a bit more skeptical of legalization efforts than their voting behavior would otherwise suggest.

One variable from which a deviation from the usual ideological or partisan positions can be found is gender.  We have found in some cases that women, particularly those with children under the age of 18 and/or who do not have a college education, exhibit weaker support for legalization than do otherwise similar men, including men who have a similar partisan and ideological profile.  Among these women, there is still a significant concern about the impact of reform outcomes and more liberalized policy on the behavior of children.  (This difference does not apply to medical marijuana reform, where women have actually shown greater support than men.)  As such, these women may well become an increasingly important – and contested – constituency for partisans of legalization on both sides.