Marijuana Moment is a wire service assembled by Tom Angell, a marijuana legalization activist and journalist covering marijuana reform nationwide. The views expressed by Angell or Marijuana Moment are neither endorsed by the Globe nor do they reflect the Globe’s views on any subject area.
When it comes to how Americans view marijuana legalization, the person sitting in the Oval Office makes a difference, a new study reports.
“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 states. The findings were published last month in the journal Deviant Behavior.
It’s probably not news to anyone that the president of the United States has the power to sway public opinion. They are, after all, the most powerful person in the country, and a great deal of attention is paid to the messages that come out of the White House. Like the mainstream media, the POTUS can therefore help shape attitudes about marijuana and other drugs.
Researchers at Kennesaw State University and Old Dominion University, however, were interested in learning just how much influence a president may have, especially when it comes to how the general public views cannabis policy.
For their analysis, the study’s authors used data from the General Social Survey spanning 1972 to 2016 to gauge Americans’ opinions on legalizing cannabis. They also reviewed reports on estimated marijuana use, as well as related arrests. To get a sense of how often presidents talked about cannabis and illicit drugs during the study period, they looked at public presidential documents, including State of the Union addresses and other speeches, messages, and executive orders.
Here’s some of what the researchers found:
• 2014 was a turning point for how Americans viewed marijuana legalization. For the first time since 1975, more people that year supported ending prohibition than those who didn’t.
• The frequency at which a president talks about marijuana and other drugs matters. The study found that “each annual percent increase in [State of the Union] words about drugs predicts a decreased odds of favoring legalization of about 6%.” Also, an increase in drug-related presidential documents led to a small decrease in favor of legalization, though the number of cannabis-related documents were not as influential.
• When more people expressed having confidence in the executive branch, the odds of their supporting legalization fell about 29 percent compared to people who said they had “hardly any confidence” in the White House.
• The crack-cocaine drug panic of the late 1980s, which other researchers say was created by President Ronald Reagan’s anti-drug rhetoric, impacted how people felt about marijuana legalization. The odds of the public favoring legalization decreased by about 27 percent then compared to other time periods.
• As more people reported consuming cannabis, the odds of supporting legalization also increased. “For every percent increase in aggregate marijuana use, the models predict a five percent increased odds of favoring marijuana legalization,” the study states.
• Political party matters. “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%.”
Researchers also found that fear of crime was found to be positively associated with legalization. As they explain it, “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.”
It’s possible, they added, that people have begun to question some of the fear-mongering associated with 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.”
As for the current occupant in the White House, President Trump has maintained that his administration will leave marijuana policy for states to decide.