Growing Support for Legalization in Washington State

Photo by Nico Escondido

There is no buyer’s remorse in the state of Washington over their legalization of marijuana in November 2012.

Since retail stores opened in July 2014, support for legalization has continued to grow, according to a new study published in the June 2017 issue of Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

Until now, only one study had looked at public support for legalization.

Meenakshi Sabina Subbarman and William Kerr, the authors of the current study, also looked at this issue in 2014, and found that in the two years from the election through the opening of retail stores, support for legalization increased—about one fifth of those who opposed the initiative in 2012 had changed their minds and were supportive of legalization in the state by 2014.

The current study by Subbarman and Kerr looked at how public opinion has changed after experience with retail stores in 2015 and 2016.

Surveys were conducted every six months from January 2014 through April 2016, at six month intervals. The support for legalization in Washington state grew from 64 percent of the public in January 2014 to 77.9 percent in April 2016, increasing an average of 19 percent during each time span.

The more experience people in Washington state acquired with weed, the more of them liked the change from prohibition to legalization.

The survey asked two simple questions.

“Do you think marijuana should be legal for adults?”

“Do you think adults should be able to grow their own marijuana for personal use?”

The available answers were “yes,” “no,” “I don’t know,” and “refused.”

While support for the first question increased over the five surveys, support for the home cultivation did not. While it did increase from 59.3 percent in the first study to 68 percent in the fifth study, this change was not statistically significant given the sample size and the confidence intervals of the results (given the plus/minus range of the findings.)

Here is a key passage from the authors’ discussion of their findings:

With each six months’ passing between January 2014 and April 2016, support increased 18% on average. Women surpass men in support by T5 [the fifth survey] although this difference was not significant. Support has also increased among 18–29, 30–49, and 50+ year old age groups, though the increases are also not statistically significant when examining 95% confidence intervals. High levels of support among current and past users were not surprising; however, the increasing levels among never users were not necessarily expected. The biggest jump in support among never users occurred in the summer of 2015, a full year after the retail stores opened in July 2014. Perhaps non-users are perceiving advantages besides the freedom to use marijuana without penalty.

A key driver of increasing support is that the public is beginning to observe “unforeseen advantages” from legalization. These include economic benefits, such as job creation and increased tourism, and also prestige for the state as it is now viewed as a leader in modernizing marijuana policy.

An important factor in understanding the data about home cultivation is that this remains illegal in Washington. A majority of the public favor home cultivation and they still do, but support for home cultivation has remained stable, perhaps because the minority opposed to it has not been able to observe positive benefits from its legalization, as they have with retail sales.

Subbarman and Kerr conclude their discussion of their results by focusing on changes in attitudes by people who do not use marijuana:

The increases in support among former and never marijuana users are particularly notable, and suggest that legalization might be achieving benefits beyond simply permitting marijuana use. Whether the increasing trends in support for marijuana legalization will bear out in other states, especially in states with current legal regimes, remains to be seen.

There has been extensive study of how and why people adopt and adapt to new ideas and innovations, particularly by Everett Rogers. The rate of adoption is influenced by five factors: relative advantage, compatibility, complexity, trialability, and observability. According to Rogers (and Karyn Scott), This last factor is…

…the degree to which the results of an innovation are visible to others. The easier it is for individuals to see the results of an innovation, the more likely they are to adopt it. Such visibility stimulates peer discussion of a new idea, as friends and neighbors of an adopter often request innovation-evaluation information about it.

The more previous opponents of legalization in Washington observe the new policy in action, the more they like it. The more visible the results, in Rogers’ words, “they more likely they are to adopt it.”

This new study by Subbarman and Kerr demonstrates the truth of this in Washington state, and provides reason for optimism and confidence for similar results in other legalization states and throughout the nation.

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