On Tuesday morning, some key Republicans and conservative scholars will huddle at the Heritage Foundation to explain how "scientific understanding of the real dangers of marijuana" should chasten the people who want legal weed in their states. The timing is ideal, as the moderate Third Way think tank is just out with a poll showing clear consensus in favor of medical marijuana and narrowly in favor of straight-up legalization. 

Third Way’s national poll fielded by Anzalone Liszt Grove in October 2014 found the country equally divided on legalizing recreational marijuana for use by adults, with 50% supporting legalization and 47% opposed to it. There is no such split for medical marijuana, with 78% in favor of allowing individuals to use marijuana for medical purposes if a doctor recommends it (18% oppose). 

The data was collected in two waves, first with a late summer focus group, next with an October poll of 856 registered voters, conducted online. That doesn't raise any flags; the 50-47 split in favor of legal recreational marijuana is in sync with the 51-47 support level Gallup found this year. When the data was broken down by subgroup, Third Way found that millennials, non-whites, and independents all strongly favored legalization. More than 30 percent of Republicans favored it. And everyone favored medical marijuana. The issue was so promising that Third Way was able to identify a "marijuana middle," open to some relaxation of the law, if it were explained to them smartly enough.

Attitudes toward legal marijuana.
Attitudes toward legal marijuana.
Third Way

The focus group found that some of the winningest arguments for marijuana were the ones that appealed to liberty, and to fear of an overreaching government. To wit:

  • "Participants simply did not believe that a cancer patient in a state that has legalized medical marijuana would be prosecuted by the federal government," according to Third Way's report. (This argument actually cut against the legalization campaign, as voters didn't expect the state to go after people if the law remained the same.)
  • Focus group-ers were swayed by arguments that the states should determine marijuana policies without the feds mucking things up. This put "advocates of a safe haven on the side of public safety—ensuring states can measure outcomes, regulate responsibly, and make sure that businesses play by the rules."
  • Participants needed the issue to be explained to them, but they were sold on the idea that a black market cash-focused marijuana industry was less safe than a legal one that could put its money in banks.

Libertarian and liberal supporters have been warning, for years, that the side effect of draconian pot laws was decreased confidence in law enforcement. If something's illegal, yet everyone you know can obtain it easily, the mind wanders and contemplates other laws that might not be worth their ink.

But Third Way was an exception to the libertarian foment. In Washington, D.C., where a marijuana measure passed easily, a city with a largely black electorate was sold on the message that the war on drugs had led to mass incarceration, ruined lives, and ineffective policing. Third Way didn't see that message resonating across America. "Focusing on the War on Drugs as a whole lumps marijuana together with hard drugs like meth, cocaine, and heroin—and that’s the exact opposite argument you want to make with the marijuana middle," argued Third Way.

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