president influences opinion marijuana legalization

Whoever resides in the White House influences American attitudes towards marijuana legalization, according to a new study released in August.

“Findings indicate that confidence in the executive branch, fear of crime, and presidential drug rhetoric predict attitudes toward legalization despite controls for other factors such as estimated levels of marijuana use and arrests,” the paper, published in the journal Deviant Behavior, claims.

While it’s not surprising that the president of the United States has considerable power over public opinion, the researchers from Kennesaw State University and Old Dominion University were interested to find out just how far this influence extends.

To do so, the study’s authors reviewed data between 1972-2016 from the General Social Survey to get a sense of American public opinion regarding marijuana legalization. They also looked at reports detailing estimated marijuana use and arrest rates for marijuana-related offenses. Finally, they analyzed public presidential documents such as State of the Union (SOTU) addresses, speeches, messages and executive orders to determine the president’s position on cannabis and how important the issue is to them.

The researchers used a multi-level model analysis using several variables and control measures in order to determine any changes over the study period between 1972 – 2016. Here’s a rundown of their findings:

  • 2014 was a turning point in American public opinion regarding marijuana legalization. It was the first time since 1975 that more people supported ending prohibition than were in favor of it.
  • How often the president speaks about marijuana and other drugs is important. The study’s authors state that “each annual percent increase in SOTU words about drugs predicts a decreased odds of favoring legalization of about 6%.” A higher number of drug-related presidential documents also corresponds to a decrease in those who favor legalization, but this is not as significant.
  • President Ronald Reagan’s anti-drug rhetoric during the crack-cocaine panic of the late 1980s had a significant impact on people’s attitudes towards marijuana legalization. The likelihood of the public supporting legalization dropped by around 27 percent when compared with other time periods considered in the study.
  • High confidence in the executive branch of government corresponds to a fall in support of legalization by about 29 percent, compared to times when the public expresses having “hardly any confidence” in the White House.
  • Higher rates of cannabis consumption increase support for legalization. “For every percent increase in aggregate marijuana use, the models predict a five percent increased odds of favoring marijuana legalization,” the study reads.
  • The party in power is also a strong determinant of public opinion on the issue. “Specifically, the model illustrates that when a Republican president is in office, each increase in confidence leads to decreased odds of favoring legalization of approximately 36%. However, when a Democratic president is in office the decreased odds of favoring legalization is reduced to 24%.”

The researchers also claim that fear of crime is positively associated with marijuana legalization. In their own words, “if two persons with the same individual level fear of crime are located in two different states, the respondent in the state with higher mean fear of crime will have a 52% increased odds of favoring legalization per unit increase in the mean fear of crime compared to the individual in the state with lower mean fear of crime.”

They extrapolate from their analysis that people may be more critical of fear-mongering in relation to marijuana.

“While attitudes toward legalization of marijuana have varied greatly over time, so has presidential rhetoric about marijuana and drugs,” the study’s authors wrote. “The lowest support for legalization is consistently found during President Reagan’s ‘Just Say No’ era. However, beginning around the election of President Clinton, a steady increase in attitudes favoring legalization…is observed. This project supports the hypothesis that presidential drug rhetoric is related to public opinion about drugs, and more specifically, about marijuana.”

The study does not include President Trump’s term within its scope. For now, his administration maintain somewhat of an indifferent stance and say they will leave marijuana policy for states to determine themselves.

If the findings of this new study are sound, it is likely that President Trump’s position will not decrease support for marijuana legalization among the American public.

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