A pleasant October surprise from Gallup

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Paul Danish/Sue France

The Gallup Poll usually asks its marijuana legalization question in October, and this year’s produced only pleasant October surprises.

The main finding of the poll is that support among American adults for legalizing marijuana has reached 60 percent, the highest percentage since Gallup first polled on the issue in 1969. In 1969 support stood at just 12 percent of those surveyed.

This year’s number is notable for a couple of reasons. First, it is the second national poll to find 60 percent support for legalization this year. (The other was the Pew organization.) Second, it puts to rest a lingering doubt raised by Gallup’s results over the last four years.

In 2013, Gallup found support for marijuana legalization at 58 percent, a sharp increase from 2012, when it was at 50 percent. (The 50 percent number was still a new record at the time.) But in 2014, support for legalization fell back to 51 percent. Which raised a question as to which one of the numbers was an outlier.

In 2015, Gallup found support for legalization was back at 58 percent, suggesting that the 2014 number was the outlier. And this year’s 60 percent result reinforces that supposition.

However, it’s also possible that the 2014 drop in support represented not a statistical anomaly but rather a real, temporary, one-year drop in support. Colorado and Washington voted to legalize marijuana in November 2012, and a burst of largely favorable news coverage followed, lasting for most of 2013. Gallup’s October 2013 polling may have reflected this.

In 2014 the coverage was more critical, and second thoughts may have set in among some — as often happens following passage of ballot proposals calling for radical change. But by 2015, people may have had a chance for more reflection on the legalization question and decided they were ready to accept it.

In either case, the 2016 finding suggests the upward trend in support for legalization is real.

The poll also contained two pleasant surprises. It found that support for legalization among Republicans has risen to 42 percent, more than double what it was a decade ago. For most of the decade support for legalization in the GOP was mired in the mid-30s range. The fact that it is now moving up means it will be easier for Republican lawmakers to be more open to legislative legalization measures, the pressure for which is apt to grow if, as expected, a majority of the nine marijuana ballot measures that will be voted on this year pass.

The second pleasant surprise is that support for legalization among older Americans (55 and older in this case) is also growing; Gallup found it at 45 percent this year, which is getting close to the 50 percent tipping point.

Here’s another way to look at the results: They reflect the changing of the generational guard over time. Individual voters are slow to change their opinions on social issues that involve banning something — like abortion or alcohol for instance. To be sure, some people change their minds, but probably most of the movement in the polls reflects older voters passing away and being replaced by younger ones who hold different opinions.

In the case of marijuana, the long term trend towards legalization seems to reflect demographics more than anything else. Allowing for statistical ups and downs, the rate of change has been about one percent a year since 1969. Polling, and more importantly, actual voting reflects the trend since 2012 as well.

In 2012 both Colorado and the state of Washington passed marijuana legalization with 55 percent majorities, higher than Gallup’s 50 percent national finding for 2012 but an indication of how national opinion was moving (especially in the case of Colorado, which tends to track national public opinion).

Four years later, about 8 million older Americans (only about a third of whom favored legalization) have passed on, while about 16 million younger Americans (about 70 percent of whom favor legalization) have reached voting age. Taken together, the two numbers explain much of this year’s record support for legalizing pot.

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