Comparing poll results on legalizing marijuana

By Julia Purdy

The Marijuana Policy Project’s paid lobbyist in Montpelier has been touting the results of a poll MPP contracted with the Castleton Polling Institute (CPI) in May 2014, ten months ago, taking the public temperature on the issue of legalizing recreational marijuana in Vermont. Since then, opinions have shifted. More recent polls show a more nuanced result.

The May 2014 MPP poll

The MPP poll sampled the general population over age 18. The question posed was: “In 2012, two states—Colorado and Washington State—changed their laws to regulate and tax marijuana similarly to alcohol, for legal use by adults age 21 and older. Would you support or oppose changing Vermont law to regulate and tax marijuana similarly to alcohol, so retailers would be licensed to sell marijuana to adults 21 and older?”

The MPP lobbyist continually reports that 57 percent of those polled favored legalization in Vermont, as if that has been the only poll taken in this state. Thirty-four percent of those polled opposed legalization and 9 percent were not sure. At the time, the issue was not well known, and its ramifications were not well understood.

The question itself has a couple of problems. First, it is a classic “leading question” which contains information that could influence the answer. Respondents might assume that the experience of those states has been beneficial and trouble-free. In May 2014 very few people had access to reliable information about what was going on in Washington State and Colorado, as those states floundered to make legalization work. In fact, thanks to Colorado’s willingness to share its experience, we now know that legalization is fraught with hidden costs and unintended negative consequences. Second, the question does not use the “L-word” even though legalization must occur in order to regulate and tax. The question cloaks the controversial legalization issue in the more palatable issue of regulation and taxation.

WCAX election poll, October 2014

Fast-forward to the WCAX News 2014 Vermont Election Poll conducted by telephone between Sept. 22 and Oct. 2, the results of which were made public on Oct. 13, 2014. The poll was random but limited to registered Vermont voters.

While the WCAX poll focused on second-guessing the gubernatorial election, the issue of legalizing marijuana was put into the mix. The result was a quite different story than the MPP poll results. Just four months later, the gap narrowed significantly between advocates and opponents of legalization. At the same time, the news out of Colorado and Washington was less than reassuring. Many websites popped up in opposition, with facts, firsthand accounts, and news coverage.

The WCAX report says: “A plurality of Vermont voters (49 percent) favor the legalization of marijuana for recreational use, while 41 percent oppose legalization. The WCAX poll found 59 percent in the 18-44 age group in support, although a sizeable 32 percent of that age group was opposed to legalization. The 45- to 64-year-olds were almost evenly split, and the 65-and-ups mirrored the 18- to 44-year-olds, but in reverse.

VT Digger poll, Feb. 9-24, 2015

The Castleton Polling Institute just completed a poll for VT Digger on current issues facing Vermont that included a set of questions on legalization of marijuana. The poll was conducted by phone to a randomly selected general population who reside in Vermont, thus making them “Vermonters.” The poll analysts conclude that “a majority of Vermonters” (54 percent of those who responded) supported legalizing marijuana in Vermont, while 40 percent opposed legalization and 6 percent were undecided or did not offer an opinion.

Perhaps surprisingly, the majority of Republicans against legalization—79 percent—were in the 18 to 44 year old range. But among self-identified Democrats, those aged 65 and up were tied, 48 percent to 48 percent, for and against legalization.

What the numbers say

The Castleton report included snippets of verbatim responses to the question asking for the main reason the respondent supported or opposed legalization. One supporter is quoted as saying, “The older generation has a hard time accepting it. . .”

But wait!—before we dismiss the 65-and-up age group as a bunch of old fuddy-duddies who are out of touch with the times, consider this:  In 2014, a 65-year-old would have been born in 1949–a Baby Boomer. At age 20 this Boomer–whether or not he or she grew up in Vermont–was undoubtedly participating in the drug culture and lifestyle, complete with its own music, art, dress, and venues. Marijuana was everywhere. Once relegated to the wrong side of the tracks, the middle-class college-educated demographic had just discovered it.

Now the Boomers and their older siblings are weighing in against legalization. Why? Maybe they understand some things. Maybe they still toke at home but don’t want to be hounded by a panoply of regulations and excise taxes. Certainly they know that the marijuana of today is a different, much more potent critter. They may be aware of how the lure of huge profits under legalization tempts the unscrupulous to adulterate or concentrate it to create “bigger and better” highs. They also may have read how legalization has not vanquished the black market but make it stronge.

They certainly have seen the less desirable effects of marijuana. They undoubtedly know that continuous use equates to habit, and habit takes its toll on the ability to think clearly. There is the undeniable increase in public safety hazards as the drug warps drivers’ perception, reaction time, and attention.

The enthusiasm was there when the 65-year-olds were in the 18-to-44 age bracket. The enthusiasm of the 18-to-44 year olds of today will undoubtedly wane with time, maturity, and more productive things to do, but legalization and its effects, once instituted, will be almost impossible to reverse.

We would be a mistake if we take marijuana legalization to be a partisan issue. Like alcohol, tobacco, opiates or the “hard” drugs, marijuana doesn’t care whom it kills. A head-on fatal crash on the highway is the ultimate observer of equal opportunity.

Mountain Times Newsletter

Sign up below to receive the weekly newsletter, which also includes top trending stories and what all the locals are talking about!