As the country enters its experimentation phase with easing marijuana laws, developments in Colorado and Washington have lent an air of acceptability to widespread legalization among staunch advocates — and perhaps opponents, too, who just see this as another sign that the world has gone to pot. Even Gov. Rick Perry has publicly called for decriminalization (though he waited until he was in Switzerland to talk about it, and did so in the context of reducing prison populations).
But while the siren call of lower prison costs and increased state revenue along with the more familiar cries of "individual liberty" may lead to forecasts of legal marijuana on the horizon, don’t hold your breath. While there is significant support for decriminalization in Texas, opposition remains strong among the voters most likely to shape the political debate.
In the February 2014 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, we asked respondents for their opinions on marijuana possession and gave them four options to choose from:
- “marijuana possession should not be legal under any circumstances;”
- “marijuana possession should be legal for medicinal purposes only;”
- “possession of small amounts of marijuana for any purpose should be legal;” and,
- “possession of any amount of marijuana for any purpose should be legal.”
Overall, just under a majority of Texans, 49 percent, said that possession of either a small amount or any amount of marijuana should be legal for any purpose. When combined with those who think marijuana should be made legal for medicinal purposes, 28 percent, it’s clear that the vast majority of Texans think that marijuana should be legal in some form. These results are comparable to national numbers, which show a slim majority of Americans favoring legalization.
But the overall results cloud the distinct ideological and partisan divergence over marijuana. Overall, 23 percent of Texas voters think that marijuana should be illegal in all circumstances, but opposition grows to 32 percent when we focus on Republican voters. Conversely, 77 percent of liberals think that small or large amounts of marijuana should be made legal for any purpose, but among conservatives, that support drops to 35 percent. Add the 32 percent of conservatives who would only legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes, and you see that the majority of the voters who drive elections in Texas remain clear-eyed in their opposition to recreational pot use.
This configuration of public opinion illustrates one reason (among the many possibilities) for some Democratic elites’ harsh attitudes toward Kinky Friedman’s candidacy for agriculture commissioner. However much potential there may be for the Democratic — and especially the liberal — grassroots to respond enthusiastically to Friedman’s emphasis on marijuana decriminalization, moderates and independents are evenly divided between those who are relatively restrictive (favoring, at most, legalization of medical uses) and those who are permissive (supporting legalization of some amounts for any use).
In the midst of a campaign in which Democrats need to persuade at least some non-Democratic voters in addition to mobilizing their own homegrown base, the talk about marijuana is at best a mixed bag, offering Republicans the opportunity to tar Democrats as cultural liberals among the far more numerous conservative and moderate voters.
This divergence of opinion between the different ideological poles is not as strong as we’ve seen in many other policy areas (abortion, for example), but there is a real distinction. This polarization in attitudes — along with the general trajectory of public opinion and the revenue that states like Colorado are pulling in — means there is reason to believe that this issue will be around for a while: There are political and policy reasons for even conservative leaders to consider some form of legalization, but also ideological points to be scored in public opposition.
Like other policy areas that have a potential moral component, such as gay marriage, opposition to decriminalization may turn out to be significant, particularly because it is concentrated in the very constituencies that buttress Republican dominance of elections and the legislative process in Texas.
On the other side, while Democrats and liberals express support for legalization in large numbers, support is likely to be less electorally potent. Though opposition may not seem numerically overwhelming, the strength of that opposition is likely to exceed that of supporters, especially among the types of socially conservative Republicans who appear to be driving the primary elections of the dominant party. Like gay marriage, marijuana may be on a trajectory from a seemingly settled, even taboo matter to topic of public debate, though don’t expect any wholesale policy reversals in Texas any time soon. Given public opinion, this is likely to be a slow burn.