Ask Our Experts: Moral Acceptability of Cannabis


Q: Public attitudes towards cannabis seem to be changing quickly. What are you seeing in the data and what does it mean for future of legal cannabis in U.S.?


By Molly McCann, Ed.D., Director of Industry Analytics, New Frontier Data

A: A recent Gallup poll found that 70% of Americans consider cannabis use morally acceptable, up from 65% in 2018 and 2019.

In the survey covering 21 topics, only five ranked as more morally acceptable than “smoking marijuana”: birth control (90%), drinking alcohol (86%), divorce (77%), sex between an unmarried man and woman (72%), and gambling (71%) — the last two outpacing marijuana by within the survey’s margin of error.

Americans in general now find smoking cannabis as more acceptable than gay/lesbian relations (66%), stem-cell research using human embryos (66%), and buying or wearing fur (54%). They are nearly twice as likely to accept cannabis use as morally acceptable than they are to believe the same of pornography (36%), reflecting the seismic shift in social attitudes toward cannabis over the past two decades.

Acceptance Grows Alongside Usage Rates

The perceived moral acceptability of smoking cannabis is closely intertwined with increased use of cannabis over the last several years. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), nearly 16% of American adults during 2017-2018 had consumed cannabis in the previous year, up from under 13% in 2013-2014.

Political Implications

Gallup’s findings also suggest that acceptance of cannabis will be a durable generational trend. Three-quarters (77%) of adults under 35 view smoking cannabis as acceptable, compared to 65% of those over the age of 55. With majorities across generations now accepting cannabis smoking, it is unlikely that the trend toward liberalization of cannabis in American society will be reversed.

Furthermore, broad public acceptance of cannabis smoking suggests that opposition to cannabis smoking lounges or other public consumption spaces will be far more limited than it had been a decade earlier, and especially in younger, more liberal-leaning jurisdictions. While states from Colorado to California have legalized spaces for public consumption, few such lounges have been opened, due to protracted regulatory hurdles including licensing and zoning permits. However, between a growing majority accepting cannabis smoking, and rising rates of use, public areas for cannabis consumption are poised to face a warm reception along American’s main street.

Public attitudes are a leading indicator of legal reform

The convergence of both public acceptance and cannabis’ increasing prevalence of use portend the continued and deepening entrenchment of cannabis in American society. Those trends are not limited to the 33 states already allowing cannabis for medical use and the 11 having legalized its full adult use, but rather they extend nationally, if imperfectly through a patchwork of laws regulating cannabis in locales throughout the country.

The variances between laws nationally are often reflected by political orientation. There is a 30% gap between Democrats and Republicans about the moral acceptability of smoking cannabis (83% vs. 51%, respectively). While notable that a slight majority of Republicans now accept it, (the GOP long being strongly opposed to it), the rising acceptance has yet to translate to support for legalization in historically Republican states. Conversely, liberal-leaning states have been far more progressive toward legalizing and decriminalizing cannabis.  Nevertheless, change seems afoot as traditionally conservative states such as Florida and Arizona rank among leading contenders to legalize recreational use by 2022.

While cannabis use (and the war against drugs writ large) has been a wedge issue in politics for decades, politicians in even the most conservatives regions would seem well advised to heed the rapidly shifting tide of public support, especially as science increasingly affirms the therapeutic value of medical cannabis, and the legal industry proves to be a positive economic engine for legal states. With attitudes toward cannabis shifting quickly, both the 2020 presidential election cycle and 2022 legislative election cycle may yield the most pro-cannabis legislators elected to national office in U.S. history. With them, advocates hope, will follow the strongest likelihood of national cannabis reform since federal prohibition was established in 1937.