The Demographics of Marijuana

Bethany Gomez

In 2014, Maryland, Minnesota and New York became the most recent states to legalize the sale of medical marijuana, bringing the total number of legal medical marijuana states to 23, plus Washington D.C. That same year, Alaska and Oregon also voted to legalize recreational marijuana, boosting the total number of legal recreational marijuana states to 4, in addition to Washington D.C.  To date, marijuana legalization, both medicinal and recreational, has followed a geographic pattern that mirrors the changing demographics of the U.S.

The west coast is the epicenter of marijuana legalization in the U.S, legalizing medical marijuana from down the coast by 2000. In recent years, legal medical marijuana has spread away from the coast to nearly every state in the American West with the exceptions of Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming.  To date, recreational marijuana is only available in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington.  Northeastern and Great Lakes states have followed the lead of their western counterparts by legalizing medical marijuana, and Vermont is currently considering legalizing the sale of recreational marijuana.  Marijuana still remains illegal in large swaths of the country including the Appalachian, Southern, and Midwestern states.

2015 survey by the Pew Research Center found that nearly 60% of Democrats favor legalization, compared to only 39% of Republicans.  A majority of Independents (58%) also favor legalization.  Looking more closely at the data, the Pew survey found a stark difference in the opinions of liberals and conservatives.  Over 75% of liberals support marijuana legalization while nearly 65% of conservative Republicans oppose it.  Moderates of both parties are split nearly 50-50 on the issue of legalization.  However, the Pew survey shows that age, perhaps more so than political affiliation, drives support for marijuana legalization.

The Pew survey found that, as a whole, young people are far more likely to support marijuana legalization than their older counterparts.  Among Millennials, defined as Americans born from 1981-1997, 68% support marijuana legalization, far more than their older counterparts.  Interestingly, both liberal and conservative Millennials are likely to support marijuana legalization.  

All together, the data from the 2015 Pew survey and the recent geography of marijuana legalization suggests that states with young populations and liberal tendencies are moving towards legalization of both medical and recreational marijuana.  Moving forward, it will be fascinating to watch what happens in states with contrasting trends, such as Utah.  Traditionally very conservative, Utah  has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1968, but it also has the most Millennials per capita of any state (32% of the population) in the country, surpassed only by Washington D.C.  Furthermore, this spring the Republican governor of Utah, Gary Herbert, said he would “be open” to legalizing medical marijuana.  

Five states have ballot initiatives to legalize recreational marijuana in 2016. Young people historically turn out in greater numbers for presidential elections, which would bode well for advocates of legalization.

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