Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Fascinating research into public perception of the drugs issue

Whilst reading this piece today by Norm Stamper from the Huffington Post about how progressives in the US are now seriously questioning the "War on Drugs" I noticed a link to this fascinating article: "The Trouble with Marijuana and Legislators" from Alternet in 2004 which questions why legislators in the US are so scared of discussing legalising the use of cannabis for medical use.

The fascinating finding is encapsulated in these snippets:

State and national polls consistently show support levels ranging from 60 percent up to 80 percent or higher. This support comes from virtually all segments of the electorate: Young and old, liberal, and conservative, rich and poor, Republican, Democrat or independent.

...

Why are they (legislators) so afraid? Politicians usually fall all over themselves to jump on issues that have better than two-to-one public support. The new Zogby poll results may contain the answer.

Asked if they support legal access to medical marijuana for seriously ill patients, the results from voters in both states were consistent with previous polling: 71 percent yes to 21 percent no in Vermont, and 69 percent yes to 26 percent no in Rhode Island.

But the new poll added a question that has not often been asked: "Regardless of your own opinion, do you think the majority of people in [Vermont or Rhode Island] support making marijuana medically available, or do you think the majority opposes making marijuana medically available?" Here the results were very different:

Vermont:
Think majority supports 37.6 percent
Think majority opposes: 37.1 percent
Not sure: 25.3 percent

Rhode Island:
Think majority supports 26.5 percent
Think majority opposes 55.9 percent
Not sure 17.6 percent

Voters support medical marijuana by a whopping margin, yet they think they're in the minority. Nothing in the polling explains the reasons for this, but it is reasonable to assume that the saturation prevalence of "drugs are bad/marijuana is dangerous" propaganda in the media (often parroted uncritically by mainstream news outlets) is a major reason. Support for protecting medical marijuana patients from arrest is a thoroughly mainstream position, but you wouldn't know it from most media coverage of the issue.

It's a safe bet that legislators and their campaign staffs are under the same misapprehension as voters. They think that supporting medical marijuana is a radical move that will get them in trouble with their constituents. It's not, and it won't.

But our elected representatives won't know that unless we teach them.

So, the vast majority of people think that cannabis should be legalised for medical use but they think that they are in a minority! I suspect that these findings would be replicated if a similar poll was done in the UK.

I have noticed a similar phenomenon anecdotally when I have talked to people about drugs policy in the UK. If they think that the law is not working and we need to think about changing it they almost seem apologetic as if their view is dangerously radical and extreme. Polls like this show that that is not necessarily true at all.

Let's hope we can get some more polling like this done in the UK in order to demonstrate to our politicians that if only they were brave enough to lead on this issue, there are likely to be a large number of people very willing to follow.

It just takes political courage.

Anyone?

7 comments:

Joe Otten said...

People are smarter than people think. But people are so dumb they don't realise it.

Cardinal Richelieu's mole said...

You say “Let's hope we can get some more polling like this done in the UK in order to demonstrate to our politicians that if only they were brave enough…”. So much for political courage and leadership then!

Mark Reckons said...

CRM - I agree but I am just being realistic. We need something to kick start it. All the evidence that the "War on Drugs" is not working is not good enough apparently and the political consensus is very far away from reform.

If it could be shown that public opinion is ahead of the politicians on this then hopefully some mainstream politicians would get involved in the debate and we could get some real movement.

Cardinal Richelieu's mole said...

I understand.

It was said of Blair that he only believed what a focus group told him he should believe. It would be nice to think we had a few politicians who not only had the courage of their convictions but, as you have pointed out hitherto, had some convictions as well.

Jayce Kay said...

Ah this old chestnut.

Why limit it to medical marijuana?

Probably the wisest path any Government can do is let the scientists do some sort of independent peer reviewed study on these substances regarding the potential pitfalls on there use and present them without spin or prejudice and just say 'these are the facts - decide for yourself'.

Then let people snort, shoot up, smoke whatever substances they want to expose themselves to, with the watch word from the Government not to expect indemnity from the Health system for doing whatever to there bodies.

You might be able to get a pleasant buzz from the contents of the average kitchen/cleaning cupboard, but you wouldn't catch me trying it.

I've got no problem if you want to do whatever, your body, your choice, your responsibility....

Jock Coats said...

This phenomenon has been noted previously as you say. One suggestion that I saw around the US election time last year, I forget whether it was from "Reason" or "SSDP", was to introduce something they were calling an "anonymous straw poll" in Congress where representatives would get to vote anonymously before any substantive debate on a controversial issue as a way of establishing the overall weight of opinion of Congress as individuals without fearing the scrutiny of constituents or lobbyists.

They felt this could enable a mature debate on reform knowing more or less how much cross party and cross nation support there is for some kind of change.

Anonymous said...

"Probably the wisest path any Government can do is let the scientists do some sort of independent peer reviewed study on these substances regarding the potential pitfalls on there use and present them without spin or prejudice"

The goverment has already done this and then promptly disregarded their reports on more than one occasional.