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Pollsters, Please Stop Asking “Should Marijuana Use Be Legal?”

Ask the right question

One thing I wish all pollsters would do is change how the ask about marijuana legalization, because they question they use is not applicable to the actual political debates taking place in this country. Normally the question they use in the poll is some version of “Should marijuana use by legal?” For example:

Do you think the use of marijuana should be legal, or not? – Gallup
Do you favor or oppose legalizing marijuana? – Fox News
Do you think the use of marijuana should be legal, or not? – Pew Research
Should marijuana use be legal? – CBS poll
Do you think the use of marijuana should be made legal, or not? – CNN

These questions may seem straight forward but their wording could be significantly skewing the results by leaving some people with the impression the marijuana would be legal without any age restrictions or regulations. These basic safeguards are part of every bill, ballot initiative, or serious proposal being debated right now in this country.

While it might seem silly, simply having the poll question indicate legalization doesn’t mean a complete free-for-all causes a big increase in support. Merely indicate it would only be legal for adults and regulated is critical. For example a Yougov poll asked the basic question “Do you think the use of marijuana should be legalized?” and found 49 percent in support and 38 percent opposed.

They then asked “Would you support or oppose your state passing a law making recreational marijuana use legal but taxing marijuana sales, limiting the sale of marijuana only to people 21 years old or older, and making it illegal to take marijuana out of state?” With this added information support increased to 55 percent and opposition dropped to only 36 percent.

Similarly, a poll of New Hampshire found 51 percent supported “legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana” but after the actually legalization bill proposed in the legislature was described to them support increased to 60 percent.

While I suspect pollsters will want to keep asking the same question they have for years for the trend line, I strongly urge them to ask a follow up question which makes it clear there would be age restricts and regulation. Something like “Do you support making marijuana legal for adults 21 and over if it is regulated like alcohol?” This slightly longer poll question more accurately reflects how adults will respond to an actual legalization ballot initiative or bill.

Jon Walker is the author of After Legalization: Understanding the future of marijuana policy, which is on sale this week for just $0.99!

Photo by David Pfeffer under Creative Commons license

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Jon Walker

Jon Walker

Jonathan Walker grew up in New Jersey. He graduated from Wesleyan University in 2006. He is an expert on politics, health care and drug policy. He is also the author of After Legalization and Cobalt Slave, and a Futurist writer at