Getting High: Public Opinion on Marijuana Legalization in 4 Charts

Source: David McNew/Getty Images

David McNew/Getty Images

Anyone who has been paying an ounce of attention to the news over the past couple of years is well aware that the nation’s attitudes towards drugs — and marijuana in particular — are going through a radical shift. Data has shown that the War on Drugs has turned out to be a monumental failure, wasting billions, if not trillions of dollars and leading to the incarceration of untold amounts of people. As the Internet has allowed more people to access information easily, it’s also become common knowledge that marijuana is not the incredibly dangerous narcotic it was made out to be for many generations, and instead could be a real driver of economic prosperity — if we allow it to be.

During the 2012 election cycle, both Colorado and Washington became the first states to pass legislation legalizing marijuana for recreational use within their borders. The news was met with great fervor, and everyone across the country has sat back and watched with much anticipation to see what the fallout would be. The DEA announced they would let the states’ experiment proceed forward without interference, and so far, things have gone off without a hitch. Tax revenue is pouring in, access to cannabis has become safer and convenient, and other states are getting to work drafting their own legislation to follow in Colorado and Washington’s footsteps.

The positive effects of the legalization process have really been undeniable in both Colorado and Washington. Fewer people are getting in trouble with the law, police officers have one less thing to worry about, and it’s opening up an entire new industry for entrepreneurs and investors to wade into. Still, there are some holdouts who still believe cannabis should be outlawed and criminalized. For the most part, the divide in attitudes has been along generational and political lines, but those rifts are starting to close up, which is one of the major reasons the legalization efforts have been able to pick up steam.

Looking at data collected by the Pew Research Center, we can take a closer look at exactly how these shifts are happening, and when they started to occur. Read on to see four charts explaining the generational and political shifts in marijuana legalization attitudes that are driving the U.S. towards new drug policies, and as a result, economic prosperity in the brand new cannabis industry.

Source: Pew Research

Source: Pew Research

The Tables Have Turned

The biggest shift in attitudes towards cannabis legalization has been across the entire demographic spectrum. The chart above shows how people of all races, genders, and age groups feel about legalizing marijuana, and as anyone can plainly point out, there has been a huge change. Starting at around 1990, legalization popularity bottomed out with just 16 percent of those polled supporting it. That number doubled in just ten years to 31 percent in the year 2000.

Since 2000, support grew wildly, and eventually reached the 52 percent threshold during 2012. Currently, numbers are the highest they’ve ever been. At the beginning of 2014, CNN polls show 55 percent support. As more and more data becomes available from Colorado and Washington’s opening industries, it’s hard to think that these numbers would see any regression.

Source: Pew Research

Deep Red Holdouts

A closer look into the political demographics show that the left is a very strong supporter of the legalization effort, while conservatives still have a ways to go. Eighty-one percent of the solid liberal base has given legalization advocates their support, compared to just 28 percent of conservatives of the same degree. In fact, the above chart shows that only the far right on the political spectrum still maintain fledgling support, while all those on the left and in the center have jumped on board.

This may actually seem counter-intuitive, as conservatives generally vie for less regulation and open markets. The fact that their attitude does not bleed into the cannabis debate tells of some other factors at play. Of course, everyone was skeptical of legalization at first, but now that most people are behind it, the right will most likely see their attitudes evolve. Even Colorado Republicans have changed their minds, and if the rest of the party doesn’t change, it could end up hurting them come election time.

Source: Pew Research

Source: Pew Research

Political Party Support

Much in-line with the previous chart, here we get a glimpse of the two main political parties themselves, not just political beliefs of those polled. It’s painfully obvious that there is a huge gap between Democrats and Republicans, to the tune of 22 percent. Once again, those numbers may seem counterintuitive, as the Republican party’s platform usually is all-for free markets and less government interference, while the Democrats typically champion more government regulation.

One interesting thing to watch as 2014 and 2016 elections come up is whether or not these numbers see a radical shift. If the majority of people are supporting the legalization effort, a 37 percent rating from the Republican side could really put a damper on conservative’s hopes of gaining more power in Congress, and by passing legislation. Republicans didn’t support legalization measures in either Colorado or Washington, and if their views don’t morph to fit the mainstream a little more, it could cost them.


Source: Pew Research

In our final chart, we see just where exactly the biggest rift currently sits when it comes to attitudes regarding marijuana legalization. The rise of the millennial population has been the most significant driving force behind the legalization effort, with 65 percent of those born after 1981 supporting the notion. That number has exploded over the past ten years or so, nearly doubling from a mere 34 percent in the mid-2000s. All other generations have seen increases as well, but none so much as the millennials.

Another giant leap in progress has been made in the baby boomer demographic, in which now half support legalization. As the boomer population makes up a large percentage of the overall population, their increasing support lends a heavy hand in the overall evolving attitudes of the country. Generation X has also reached a point to where more than half of the generation is on board as well, and as the silent generation ages and passes on, many who are against legalization will go with them.

It’s obvious that things are changing, and generational and political lines are still the biggest factors in deciding attitudes towards marijuana legalization for many. Expect that to change in coming years, as cannabis becomes an even bigger issue than it ever has before, especially when monstrous profit and tax revenue is involved.

More From Wall St. Cheat Sheet: