Mark A. Smith is professor of Political Science and an adjunct professor of Comparative Religion and Communication at the University of Washington. His research focuses on economic and religious groups, ideas, and influences in American politics. In his new book, Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics, Dr. Smith argues that religion is not nearly the unchanging conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is and is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them.
Forget about choosing the next president: on November 6, three states will vote on a ballot initiative that could set them on a collision course with federal drug enforcement agencies. Voters in Washington, Oregon, and Colorado will decide whether marijuana sales should be legalized and taxed and regulated like alcohol, creating the possibility of a showdown with the federal government, which classifies pot as a “schedule 1” narcotic. Marijuana is currently legal in 17 states for medical purposes only, policies which have already created a significant amount of tension with the federal government.
Full legalization, even in one state, could spur significant debate among Americans. The 2012 American Values Survey shows that a majority (52%) of Americans oppose the legalization of marijuana. Roughly 4-in-10 (43%) Americans believe that marijuana should be legal. But there are substantial divisions in opinion, particularly on the morality of smoking marijuana, which might signal that the struggle over marijuana is just beginning.
Americans are divided on the morality of smoking marijuana: 48% believe that smoking pot is morally acceptable, while 45% say this is morally wrong. There are sharp divides on both of these questions by age and gender. Millennials (age 18-29) are more than twice as likely as seniors (age 65 and older) to favor legalization (59% vs. 28%) and to believe that smoking marijuana is morally acceptable (64% vs. 27%). These generational divisions are consistent with the findings from the 2012 Millennial Values & Voter Engagement Survey, which are illustrated in last week’s Graphic of the Week. Meanwhile, women are less likely than men to believe that smoking marijuana is morally acceptable (43% vs. 54%), and also less likely to favor legalization (39% vs. 48%).
The divisions are even wider when marital status is taken into account. Men who have never been married are most supportive of legalization and most likely to believe smoking marijuana is morally acceptable: more than 7-in-10 (71%) believe that smoking marijuana is morally acceptable, compared to a slim majority (52%) of women who have never been married. Only roughly 4-in-10 married men (42%), and married women (38%) say this is morally acceptable. Similarly, more than 6-in-10 (62%) men who have never been married favor legalizing marijuana, compared to 52% of women who have never been married, 4-in-10 (40%) married men, and one-third (33%) of married women.
There are also decisive gaps by political and religious affiliation. Democrats (52%) are twice as likely as Republicans (26%) to favor making marijuana legal, while independents are divided. And while a majority (65%) of religiously unaffiliated Americans favor the legalization or marijuana, white mainline Protestants are divided (46% favor, 48% opposed), and majorities of Catholics (57%), black Protestants (59%), and white evangelical Protestants (68%) oppose the legalization of marijuana.
Current polling in Washington shows that a majority of voters in the Evergreen State favor legal marijuana, making it the state with the best chance of legalization. But regardless of what happens on November 6, it seems unlikely that marijuana will stay off the national stage for long.