Marijuana Opinion Polling: Be Cautious Amidst the Hype

The special interest marijuana lobby -- who, like the tobacco industry, intend to make millions off marijuana products by advertising and promoting their substance of choice -- can't stop talking about a recent Gallup poll finding that 58 percent of Americans support marijuana legalization. Media outlets are already calling "game over" on the debate, expressing that, like gay marriage, marijuana is an issue whose time has come.

Not so fast.

Though marijuana lobbyists, like other special interest groups, are masters at manipulating and overplaying findings favorable to their crusade -- and ignoring findings that are unfavorable (like the link between marijuana and IQ loss or mental illness), the rest of us should see through the smoke and mirrors. There are at least three major problems with using Gallup as a reliable marker for marijuana attitudes in the U.S., some pointed out in an earlier post by Washington legalization advisor Mark Kleiman:

(1) The poll asked about marijuana use, not sales and production. The recent votes in Colorado and Washington were primarily about sales and production. Being okay with adults using marijuana is vastly different from agreeing to the creation of a new Big Tobacco-like industry producing, promoting, and selling marijuana. In fact, another poll released a few months ago found that over 80 percent of parents expect no advertising of marijuana under legalization. That certainly has not been the case -- with marijuana vending machines, kids candies, and magazine ads now a staple in Washington and Colorado.

(2) Gallup has always shown more support for legalization than other polls, and there's reason to think it may be an outlier. The Guardian's Harry Enten, who blogs about polling, makes the point:

Of the three other polls taken this year, only Pew's found a majority who believe use of marijuana should be made legal. Pew's 52% was far less than Gallup's 58%, and it, at least, followed the more linear trend of support building slowly over a few years that one might expect.

The other two polls conducted in 2013 actually found that more people than not wanted recreational use of marijuana to stay illegal. A survey conducted by Fox News had the number in favor of legalization only at 46%, with 49% opposed. And a Public Religion Research Institute* survey matched the Fox News poll, with 45% in favor of marijuana legalization and 49% opposed.

Indeed, a look at the broader range of polling suggests that over the past few years, public opinion on legalizing marijuana has stayed mostly steady:

• ABC News/Washington Post (2009-2012): 46%, 46% and 48%

• Angus Reid (2009-2012): 53%, 52%, 55%, 52% and 54%

• CBS News (2009-2012): 41%, 31%, 41%, 44%, 40%, 45% and 47%

(3) The poll had a small sample size of only about 1000 respondents. Enten points to the fact that far better surveys -- like the General Social Survey, used mostly by academics because of its better sampling techniques, showed a decline in support -- from 44 percent in 2010 to 43 percent in2011.

There is no doubt that marijuana legalization enjoys more support than it did a few years ago. The legalization lobby -- primarily funded by one man, billionaire marijuana smoker Peter Lewis -- has spent millions convincing Americans that marijuana legalization will bring "money for new schools!" and "safer roads!" and "no more drug cartels!" if passed.

But other groups aren't so excited. Earlier this year, former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy and I founded Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), along with a slew of public health researchers and physicians -- from groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Society of Addiction Medicine, and other prominent medical organizations -- to raise awareness about what the likely real result of legalization will be: this century's version of Big Tobacco. That's because millionaire ex-Microsoft executives are already launching, in their words, the "Starbucks of Marijuana." And multimillion-dollar private holding groups continue to raise money from investors eager to cash in on the "green rush."

People's image of marijuana legalization, however, is not consistent with this new corporate reality. Folks are still stuck in the 1970s -- they think of peace loving, drum playing, harmless pot smokers who just want to light up without the hassle of the law. And thanks to a marijuana industry casting doubt on any shred of scientific evidence (indeed mounds of it) that puts the drug in a bad light, confusion persists.

Hippies, step aside please. Marijuana's Marlboro Man is about to take the stage.