Ask Our Experts 4/7/2019: Does age or politics shape consumers view on cannabis legalization?

By John Kagia, Chief Knowledge Officer, New Frontier Data


Q: Does age or politics shape consumers view on cannabis legalization? 


A: The newly released General Social Survey, the biannual survey of U.S. national opinion survey by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center, shows continued national support for cannabis legalization, with some interesting differences emerging within the population. Considered the gold standard of public polling, the 2018 survey found support for legalization reaching a new high of 62%, up from 34% in 2008 (up 82%).

When first the survey asked the question in 1973 support was at 19%, before hitting its low of 16% in 1987 at the height of the Reagan administration’s anti-cannabis efforts. Since 2012 support has increased 42%, reflecting growing public acceptance as legalization has expanded across the country, the strengthening evidence of cannabis’ therapeutic value, and the increasing normalization of cannabis use in places where it is legal.



While national consensus has cemented with the majority in support, differences within groups remain. Nearly three-quarters of younger adults (72.2%) support legalization, compared to less than half (45.6%) of those over age 65. However, support among older adults has risen dramatically over the past decade, doubling from 20.8% in 2008. The surging support among older adults is partially due to the effectiveness of cannabis in addressing many of the conditions associated with aging, the widespread availability of cannabis products offering alternatives to smoking, and their growing access through expansion of medical cannabis laws. With many Americans facing increasingly complex and costly health-related challenges, cannabis is increasingly being included among older patients’ therapeutic options.

A variant of this generational divide is also reflected in the differences by marital status. People who have never been married support legalization by 20 percentage points more than those currently married (74.3% vs 54.7%).

The differences by political orientation are wide, with Democrats supporting legalization by nearly 30 percentage points more than Republicans (69.5% vs. 42.2%). This significant difference will be noteworthy in the run-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Almost all the presidential candidates within the large pool of Democrats have asserted support for national legalization. It remains to be seen where the Republican platform will settle, but regardless of where each party stakes its ground, the next 18 months will see the most robust public debate about cannabis in modern American history at a time when support for legalization has never been higher.

In another compelling finding, people who rate their health as excellent were more likely to support legalization than those in poor health (69.5% vs. 60.7%). Such a difference may be because healthy people are more likely to be familiar with the wellness and therapeutic uses of cannabis, and therefore more likely to support allowing its use. As the global debate evolves, strong support from health-oriented communities will play an important role in overcoming the stigma and reticence about cannabis consumption which may be retained among those unfamiliar with the plant’s health-related uses.

The now-daily headlines about cannabis reflect the seismic shift in attitudes during the past few years, with rising support driving medical and adult-use legalization across the country. With the animated debate about adult-use legalization underway in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania (and with states from Georgia to Wisconsin advancing medical-use laws), the tide to expand cannabis access shows no sign of turning. The social change will be durable as young adults (the strongest supporters of legalization) reach maturity in environments where cannabis can be legally integrated into their lives in a multiplicity of ways.  While the U.S. has been at the forefront of such shifting attitudes about cannabis, emerging global data suggests that the trend will be replicated elsewhere around the world in coming years.