The tide may be turning toward legalization, but just who is in favor of recreational marijuana use? And does legalization mean weed is morally acceptable? This year has seen two states, Washington and Colorado, legalize marijuana not only for medical use but also for recreational users. A majority of voters in those states approved ballot measures to decriminalize growing, selling and using marijuana and to tax and regulate the pot industry, just as the alcoholic beverage industry is taxed and regulated. More than 10 other states may follow suit with similar ballot measures in upcoming elections.
In a new nationwide study, Barna Group asked Christian and non-Christian adults 18 and older their views on the legal and moral acceptability of marijuana.
A majority of Americans (58%) now favor legalizing marijuana for recreational or other use. This scale has tipped for almost all groups—the exceptions being among Christians and those over the age of 64, among which a majority still believe recreational marijuana should be kept illegal.
Men (63%) are more likely than women (53%) to favor legalization, as are people who do not have children under 18 (60%, compared to 54% of those with kids younger than 18). As a rule, people with higher incomes and some college education tend to favor legalization at higher rates than those with lower incomes and less education.
Generationally, Gen-Xers (64%) are most likely to say pot should be legal. While Millennials are more likely than Gen-Xers to have actually smoked pot in the past 30 days, they are on par (58%) with the average—and with Boomers (57%)—when it comes to favoring legalization. Elders over the age of 64 (45%) are less likely to say marijuana should be legal.
Though white Americans are slightly more likely than black Americans to have used marijuana in their lifetime (52% verses 49%), black Americans are more likely to favor legalizing it (65% verses 57%).
In contrast to the widening cultural mainstream, most practicing Christians oppose legalization. Even mainline Protestants, who often trend more liberal on social issues than their Catholic and non-mainline brethren, are less likely (45%) than the national average to say pot should be legal in the U.S. Non-mainline Protestants (32%) and Catholics (39%) are far less likely to favor legalization than the general American population.
Reasons (Not) to Legalize
Those who favor legalization and those who do not each have good reasons for their position. Among those in favor of legal pot, one in seven (14%) say it is not any worse than alcohol or tobacco (which are both legal), or at least not as bad as other drugs (9%). Another one in seven (14%) say legalization could be good for the economy. A smaller percentage cites possible medical benefits (13%) or the fact that people will use it regardless of its legality (8%).
On the other hand, among those who oppose legalization, about one in 10 say marijuana is not good for you (9%) or there is a substantial risk of driving impairment (9%). They are also concerned about the danger of abuse or addiction (6%) and point to pot’s reputation as a gateway drug (6%) or just say drugs, in general, should not be for personal recreational use (4%).
Legal Maybe, but Not Moral
While the majority of Americans think smoking pot should be legal, most still say it’s not okay to use it. Less than half of all adults (47%) believe it’s morally acceptable to smoke marijuana for recreational use.
This is most pronounced among practicing Christians, particularly non-mainline Protestants: fewer than one in seven (13%) say it is acceptable to use marijuana for recreation. Mainline Protestants (40%) and Catholics (33%) are also less likely than the average (47%) to say recreational weed is acceptable.
While two-thirds of black adults favor legalization of marijuana, only one-third (35%) say it is morally acceptable. Whites (51%) are the ethnic segment most likely to say recreational pot is acceptable, and the only segment in which a majority say so.
More education and higher income correlate with greater moral approval of marijuana, similar to legalization trends. Men (52%) are more likely than women (42%) to say recreational pot is morally acceptable (men, at 56%, are also more likely than women, at 45%, to have smoke marijuana at least once). People who don’t have children (49%) are more likely to affirm pot use as acceptable than are parents of children under 18 (42%).
Perhaps surprisingly, Millennials (48%) are no more likely than Gen-Xers (48%) or Boomers (49%) to say marijuana is morally acceptable. Elders, as one might expect, are less likely to accept the morality of pot use (35%).
Pot Users and Not Users
Half of American adults (50%) have never used marijuana, but the proportions are not equal between generations. Baby Boomers (61%) are far more likely than average to have used pot at least once, and slightly more likely to have used it 100 or more times (18%, compared to 15% of all adults). At the other end of the spectrum, three-quarters of Elders (76%) have never used marijuana, and just 3% say they have partaken 100 or more times.
Gen-Xers are less likely than average never to have tried pot (48%), but also less likely to have used it on 100 or more occasions (13%). Slightly more than half of Millennials, meanwhile, have never used marijuana (53%) but they also more likely to have used it 100 or more times (17%).
Millennials are also more likely than average to have used pot in the past 30 days, with one-third (32%) reporting they used it at least once—compared to 15% of all adults. About one in 10 Gen-Xers (9%) and Boomers (10%) used weed during the past month, but fewer than one in 20 Elders (4%) used it.
Context and Commentary
Those who believe pot is morally acceptable are still in the minority, but the current numbers represent a significant increase over the past decade. In 2001, Barna Group asked practicing Protestants and Catholics if they believed non-medical use of marijuana was morally acceptable. Just 9% of Protestants approved, compared with 19% in 2014; 17% of Catholics approved in 2001, compared with 33% today. The general population has shifted, as well. In 2001, 25% of adults said non-medical pot was morally acceptable; by 2014, that proportion increased to 47%.
David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group and director of the study, said, “There is a clear trend toward greater cultural acceptance of recreational marijuana, even among many practicing Christians. National surveys are a great way to find out what people think and how their perspectives have changed over time. But why those changes are happening is more difficult to pin down through conventional polling.
What we can conclude is that America continues to shift from a culture that values abstinence to one that focuses on experience. Marijuana use fits within a larger trend of liberalizing views and behaviors when it comes to activities like gambling, pre-marital or extra-marital sex, and drinking. As attitudes toward temptations shift, Americans increasingly define the ‘pursuit of happiness’ to include personally invigorating or even escapist experiences.
The fact that Americans are more willing to legalize marijuana than to view its use as morally acceptable shows an increasing pragmatism. Financial pragmatists argue that decriminalizing pot generates tax revenue and diminishes the cost of law enforcement. Moral pragmatists argue it’s better to let people live by their own conscience than to make laws that regulate how they live. In other words, the research points to the continuing ascendancy of personal and individual rights over legislating a shared sense of morality.
Interestingly, Millennials are not at the forefront of the drive for greater acceptance of pot, unlike other social issues. Views toward marijuana do not follow a traditional younger-is-more-accepting pattern. In fact, Millennials are no more likely than Boomers or Gen-Xers to approve of recreational marijuana. This may be the ripple effects of widespread usage by Boomers during the 1960s and ’70s now creating a broad-based consensus to legalize marijuana nationwide.”
About the Research
The research included in this report is the result of a nationwide online study conducted January 28 to February 5, 2014. The survey included 1,024 adults 18 and over. The maximum sampling error for the study is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.
People are identified as having a “practicing” faith if they have attended a church service in the past month and say their religious faith is very important in their life.
The online study is derived from a probability panel, which means that respondents are recruited for inclusion in the research based on physical mailing addresses, not an opt-in online panel. Those randomly selected households without Internet access are provided an Internet-enabled device to complete surveys.
Generations: Millennials (or Mosaics) are the generation born between 1984 through 2002; Busters, between 1965 and 1983; Boomers, between 1946 and 1964; and Elders, in 1945 or earlier.
Mainline Protestants include American Baptist Churches, Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, United Church of Christ, United Methodist, and Presbyterian Church, USA. Non-mainline Protestants are those who identify with a Protestant church not included in the mainline denominations.
About Barna Group
Barna Group (which includes its research division, Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
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© Barna Group, 2014
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