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Why Do GOP Lawmakers Still Oppose Legalizing Weed?

Today is 4/20, the holiday for stoners and weed enthusiasts around the world. Legalizing marijuana is no longer a fringe issue championed mainly by those partaking in the day’s festivities either. Over the past two decades, we’ve seen a remarkable rise in support for legalization. Polls over the past year from Civiqs, Quinnipiac and Gallup show that roughly 7 in 10 American adults think the use of cannabis should be legal, double the share who thought so 20 years ago.

In fact, a majority of registered voters in all 50 states now favor making cannabis legal, according to state-level polling data from Civiqs. Support ranges from a low of 52 percent in North Dakota to a high of 81 percent in Vermont and Washington.

This widespread support is rapidly changing the landscape of marijuana prohibition, too. Just 10 years ago, the use and distribution of cannabis for recreational purposes was illegal across the entire country. But since 2012, 18 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, and a handful more are expected to follow soon. This month, meanwhile, the U.S. House passed legislation that would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level.

Not everyone is on board with those policy changes, though. Over 200 House Republicans voted against the legislation, while only three voted for it. (By comparison, over 200 House Democrats voted for the legislation, while only two voted against it.) That partisan opposition means the bill will almost certainly die in the U.S. Senate. After all, Democrats need at least 10 GOP senators to join them in breaking a filibuster. Moreover, even less-controversial marijuana legislation — such as allowing cannabis-related businesses access to the banking system — has repeatedly failed among Republicans in the Senate. With several GOP senators already expressing their disapproval of the bill, this legislation is likely destined to suffer the same fate.

GOP lawmakers’ ongoing opposition to legalization is clearly at odds with the viewpoints of many Americans, as most voters now support legalizing marijuana for recreational use. But congressional Republicans are also increasingly out of step with their own rank-and-file members, as it’s Republicans disproportionately driving the most recent uptick in support for legalizing marijuana, according to polling from Civiqs.

To be sure, you can see in the chart above that Republicans are still much more likely than Democrats or independents to oppose marijuana legalization. But net support for legalizing marijuana also rose twice as much among Republicans as it did among Democrats and independents over the past four years. Since April 1, 2018, net support for legal cannabis (support for legalization minus opposition to legalization) increased by 11 percentage points and 13 points among Democrats and independents, respectively. Republicans’ net support for legalization, in the meantime, grew from -15 points at the start of April 2018 to a high of +13 points at the end of March. (As of Sunday, net support among Republicans was +12 points.)

Other polling indicates solid GOP support for legalization, too. A 62 percent majority of Republicans surveyed by Quinnipiac in 2021 said that marijuana should be made legal in the U.S., a whopping +30 points in net support. In a Gallup poll conducted the same year, Republicans were split on the issue, with net support for legalization at +1. Statewide polling from Civiqs similarly found that more Republicans favor legal cannabis than oppose it in almost every state.

So why exactly, then, aren’t more congressional Republicans representing their own voters’ views on this issue? One possibility is that many of these lawmakers simply don’t know how much Republicans’ opinions have changed. Political science research shows that politicians tend to overestimate their constituents’ support for conservative policies, with Republican lawmakers driving much of this phenomenon. Some congressional Republicans may therefore oppose federal legalization because they mistakenly believe they’re representing their own voters’ views.       

Other members, however, are likely voting based on their own personal opposition to marijuana legalization. Compared with most Americans, congressional Republicans tend to be older and more religious, two demographic groups that are far more averse to legalization than younger and religiously unaffiliated Americans. Indeed, GOP politicians often oppose drug legalization on behalf of conservative principles like morality, order and family values.

Regardless of the reasons, though, Democrats would be wise to make congressional Republicans’ opposition to marijuana legalization an issue in the upcoming midterm elections. As I noted two years ago, not only is legalization popular across the political spectrum, but political science research shows that it’s also one of the more important issues to Democrats, Republicans and independents. Every 4/20, in fact, it becomes more and more apparent that marijuana legalization is a winning political issue.     

Michael Tesler is a professor of political science at University of California, Irvine, author of “Post-Racial or Most-Racial? Race and Politics in the Obama Era” and co-author of “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.”


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