The politics and use of pot

By the mid-1930s in the U.S., the modern pattern on pot had taken shape. Party people celebrated that funny Reefer Man, while sober minds feared moral collapse from Reefer Madness. Things died down in the oddly staid post-war years, but as Bob Dylan was resurrecting the Depression-era ballads of Woody Guthrie, youth culture rediscovered pot. Support for legalization began rising. It stalled in the 1980s and 1990s at around 25%, but has climbed steadily ever since.

According to recent Pew surveys, around 55% of U.S. residents now support the legalization of pot when given a binary yes/no choice. When asked whether they’ve used it, 52% say they’ve never tried it, 12% say they’ve used it in the past year, and the other 36% say they’ve used it, but not in the past year. (Though, of course, some people might be reluctant to admit it.)

The politics and use of pot are closely related. Among recent pot users, around 92% support legalization. For those who’ve used it at some point, but not recently, support is around 65%. And among those who’ve never tried it, support lands at around 37%.

But who are these people? What are the demographic breakdowns?

Scoring with anti-pot points

Often when I look at political data, I start breaking down the public into specific sub-groups—white evangelicals with higher incomes, non-Christians with college degrees, and so on. With pot, that doesn’t work as well. It turns out that lots of the things that matter in predicting support for legal pot (as well as pot use) are things that apply to smaller slices of the public.

So, here, we’ll use a point system—specifically, we’ll give anti-pot points based on a list of characteristics. These are things that simultaneously predict who supports and opposes pot legalization as well as who has used pot or not.

A big theme is religion, though it’s not the usual evangelical/mainstream/non-Christian breakdown that shows up with so many political issues. With pot, it’s Mormons and Hindus on the anti-pot side; non-Mormon Christians along with Jews, Muslims, and the “nothing in particular” folks in the middle; and atheists, agnostics, and “others” (Buddhists, Universalists, Native American religions, Wiccans, etc.) on the pro-pot side. In addition, people who regularly attend religious services are more anti-pot than those who don’t.

Then there are a few additional factors that are big deals, but apply to relatively small groups. In particular, Hispanic immigrants, Asians, and seniors tend to be on the anti-pot side, both in terms of political opinions and whether they have used pot.

Put it all together and we get the chart below. Basically, think of a kind of person, run through the calculation to figure out their demographic anti-pot points, and see how people with that number of points land in the general public. (Of course, most of you will pick yourself first. Sure, go ahead. Just keep in mind that this isn’t some kind of prediction of you, but a way to describe the average skews of large groups in the public.)

The pie charts give the results. For political views on pot legalization, the red wedges indicate opposition and the green ones indicate support (and the tiny grey ones are people who couldn’t decide). For the use of pot, the red wedges indicate those who said they’ve never tried pot, the light green ones are people who said they’ve tried it but haven’t used it in the past year, and the dark green ones are people who said they’ve used pot in the past year.

PewPot(Technical notes: The total sample size for the political item is 8,341 and for the use item is 4,770. Results are weighted.)

Most people are in the 1-point and 2-point camps—together, these total 78% of the weighted sample. The 0-point camp is 7% and the 3-or-more camp is 15%.

I’ll run through the extreme groups. The 0-point group is atheists, agnostics, and people in various miscellaneous religions, but only those who are not also Hispanic immigrants, Asians, seniors, or people who attend religious services weekly. So, for example, Buddhists are here, but only those who are not Asian (and not seniors, etc.). These atheists/agnostics/others support legal pot by about 10 to 1 and over three-quarters admit to having tried it—almost a third say they’ve used pot in the past year.

The 3-or-more-points group combines extremes on the other side. Most Hindus are here—the large majority of Hindus (+2 points) are also Asian (+1 point). Most Mormons are here, along with about 4 in 10 weekly churchgoers. Half of Hispanic immigrants are here, as are half of seniors. These folks really tend not to like pot. Around three-quarters of this 3-or-more-points group think pot should be illegal and over 80% say they’ve never tried it.

Let’s talk about sex (and religion and immigration)

In chapter 4 of The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind, Kurzban and I provide a framework for thinking through lifestyle issues that relate strongly to religiosity, including, among others, the legality of pot, porn, and abortion. The main theme is that these kinds of issues—along with religiosity itself—are strongly related to people’s own sexual and reproductive lifestyles.

So, for example, we talk about a large longitudinal study that has followed a group of U.S. teens into adulthood. There, we learn that lots of kids regularly attend church with their parents when they’re young, but then the large majority stop going regularly when they reach their late teens and early 20s. And who are the ones most likely to stop? It’s the kids who start partying and hooking up. In other words, while it’s common to view adults as having learned their religious patterns from their parents, there’s also a big deal here where what we’ve called Freewheeler lifestyles can lead adults to avoid religion even when raised religious.

When it comes to pot specifically, my colleagues and I have shown that people’s personal feelings about casual sex are uniquely strong predictors of whether they think recreational drugs should be legal (we showed this with adult and student samples in the U.S., as well as in Japan, Belgium, and the Netherlands). Once you know how turned on people are by the idea of hooking up, you just don’t learn much more about their views on legal pot by adding in things like their church attendance and political ideology. The public arguments may be in terms of pot-as-medicine, states’ rights, personal liberty, tax revenue, or whatever, but the heart of the matter is sex—just as it was back in the 1930s.

While the Pew surveys don’t contain information about sexual lifestyles (Sad!), the sexual theme shows up indirectly in religious measures. Here, the big pro-pot folks are atheists, agnostics, and various niche religions. But most of these folks were raised in Christian households and only later—when they started partying and hooking up—came to reject the sexual moralizing of their childhood faiths. You could try to say that there’s something about being non-religious that makes people pro-pot, but it’s mostly that being a Freewheeler makes people avoid sexually moralizing religions.

This is true on the other side as well. Weekly churchgoers are mostly people with sexually restricted lifestyles. Also, you might see the heavy anti-pot leanings of Mormons as a sign that they’re getting that from their Mormon upbringings, but over a third of people raised Mormon leave the faith in adulthood. And those who leave are mostly Freewheelers, leaving behind a concentrated group of non-partiers.

While sexual lifestyles are a major theme driving political issues like abortion, birth control, pot, porn, and so on, each specific issue also has its own subthemes. With pot, a big subtheme is immigration. The politics and use of pot carry a unique pattern where Hispanic immigrants, along with folks in other groups that suggest a higher likelihood of relatively recent immigration (e.g., Asians and Hindus), tend to be anti-pot. There’s an obvious idea here: Maybe avoiding pot use is part of a general tendency among immigrants to avoid illegal activities, given the deportation risks. Or maybe it’s less about legality and more about lifestyles—something about how immigrants tend to play things safe and stable in their personal lives (including avoiding Freewheeling and having stable marriages) as they’re trying to gain a foothold in an unfamiliar land.