Skip to main content
ABC News
Group of Liberal New Yorkers Wants to Legalize Weed

The New York Times Editorial Board endorsed the legalization of recreational marijuana last weekend. I personally share its position, and I appreciate the thorough and well-written series on drug policy it’s preparing. But I was surprised by one aspect of the endorsement: I’d assumed the Times would have taken a pro-legalization position a long time ago.

True, it’s only been recently that polls have shown a majority of Americans in favor of marijuana legalization. But the Times’ editorial board isn’t like most Americans. Instead — we’ll get more precise about this in a moment — it consists of a bunch of well-off liberals living in (or near) New York. If you met folks like that at a dinner party, it would be safe to assume that most of them supported marijuana legalization and had done so for years.

This analysis is similar to the one I conducted of Hillary Clinton last month, which pointed out that most women with her demographic profile have supported gay marriage for many years (Clinton endorsed gay marriage in 2013). As it happens, we’ve been collecting detailed data on how different demographic groups feel about marijuana policy, as we have for same-sex marriage.

Specifically, we’ve compiled individual-level responses for eight polls on marijuana legalization conducted between 2012 and 2014 — an overall sample of more than 11,000 people. This data allows us to be quite precise about how various demographic variables work together to predict someone’s support for marijuana legalization.

So let’s assemble a fake editorial board from that sample. I selected respondents with the following characteristics:

  • Lives in New York
  • Age 45 or older
  • College-educated or graduate degree
  • Income of $75,000 per year or above
  • Liberal or moderate
  • Democratic or independent

This demographic profile ought to describe all or almost all members of the Times’ editorial board. (Perhaps a couple of them live in Connecticut, or one or two of them are younger than 45, or there’s a Rockefeller Republican thrown in, but it should peg them well on the whole.) I didn’t make any assumptions about the race, gender or religious preferences of the editorial board, although I’d note that a majority of the board members are men, and men are more likely than women to support legalizing pot.

Some 60 respondents met all these criteria and stated a position (pro- or anti-) on marijuana policy. Of those, 77 percent said marijuana should be legal. The proportion is slightly higher, 81 percent, using the demographic weights contained in the original polls. Either way, people with this demographic profile are somewhere around 25 or 30 percentage points more supportive of marijuana legalization than the average American. That implies that back in 2000, when only about 30 percent of Americans supported legalization, perhaps 55 or 60 percent of these people did. The margin of error on this estimate is fairly high — about 10 percent — but not enough to call into question that most people like those on the Times’ editorial board have privately supported legalization for a long time. The question is why it took them so long to take such a stance publicly.

So … who cares? Some of it is that I get irked when elites get credit for publicly taking “bold” positions that other folks came to much sooner. This is particularly the case when the position is one you’d expect them to have held in their private lives all along.

But there’s a particularly large gap between elite and popular opinion on marijuana policy. Consider that, according to The Huffington Post, none of the 50 U.S. governors or the 100 U.S. senators had endorsed fully legal recreational marijuana as of this April — even though some of them are very liberal on other issues, and even though an increasing number of them represent states where most voters support legalizing pot.

Perhaps some of this is smart politics — older Americans are less likely to support marijuana legalization and more likely to vote. But there’s also a more cynical interpretation: racial minorities, low-income Americans and young people are disproportionately more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses than senators or newspaper editorial board members (or their sons and daughters). The elites may be setting the policy, but they’re out of touch with its effects.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.