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Unraveling Medical Marijuana Public Opinion in Colorado

Opponents failed to defeat a Fort Collins initiative last fall that shut out medical marijuana dispensaries. While more communities across the state are attempting to ban shops, recent polls show a majority of Coloradans support legalization of pot.
Grace Hood
Opponents failed to defeat a Fort Collins initiative last fall that shut out medical marijuana dispensaries. While more communities across the state are attempting to ban shops, recent polls show a majority of Coloradans support legalization of pot.

Three Colorado towns voted to ban the sale of medical marijuana in municipal elections this week. The move comes the same year proponents are seeking to legalize use of marijuana across the state. 

As interest groups seek to both liberalize and add restrictions on the drug in Colorado, political scientists and pollsters are left with a puzzling task: pinpointing just exactly where public opinion stands.

Malleable Opinions

Should marijuana use be legal in the state of Colorado? That’s the question that pollsters will increasingly ask leading up to November’s election. But Colorado State University Political Science Professor Kyle Saunders says how Coloradans think about the topic could make it difficult to accurately sample public opinion.

“You might have a situation where you have 51/38 one week, something happens and a month later, it could be 38/51 the other way, and it could switch right back,” he says. “That’s different than something like abortion. You know where you stand on abortion, and it very rarely changes.”

Saunders explains that there are so-called “hard issues”, like medical marijuana or marijuana legalization, where public opinions are impressionable. That’s compared to “easy issues” like gay marriage and abortion. This may help explain two surveys conducted by Public Policy Polling last year that show Coloradans favoring legalization of marijuana. An August poll showed overwhelming support, while a December poll had a marginal majority. Meantime, there’s a growing list of communities from Fruita to Fort Collins, which have banned medical marijuana dispensaries.

“Even if there’s been a permissiveness that had occurred, all of the sudden there’s an organization that’s gotten people organized, for instance exactly what happened in Fort Collins,” he says.

In addition to local media attention, Fort Collins’ ban on dispensaries was the subject of the recent 10-part “American Weed” series produced by the National Geographic Channel. Lynn Sadofsky was an executive producer for the project, which tells the story of opposition and support that grew around Question 300.

“There’s no way to know exactly the impact of show, but we’re hoping that it educates viewers and helps them make better decisions when it comes to their opinions,” she says.

Whichever opinion, Kyle Saunders says interest groups and media outlets like National Geographic areshaping public attitudes. He says that’s largely because most political candidates—and parties—aren’t taking sides.

“Not that many people care about the issue or you would see politicians and elites taking stands on it, you would have parties actively seeking and taking stands on these issues,” he says. “They don’t. They do what they can to keep it on the periphery. ”

A Critical Mass in November?

Public opinion may also be influenced by personal experiences.

For Fort Collins-based author Greg Campbell, it was a cousin’s battle with the deadly cancer mesothelioma, and learning about the relief she found from medical marijuana, that was a key turning point.

“That was really eye opening to know I had such a personal, familial connection to someone who had experienced apparently pretty significant pain relief,” he says. “To the degree she wrote [in a journal] that if she had survived her cancer she would become an activist, and work on behalf of medical marijuana laws in the state of New York.”

Campbell wrote about the recent change in his viewpoint on marijuana—from ambivalence to strong support for legalization—in his recently released book, “Pot, Inc.: Inside Medical Marijuana, America's Most Outlaw Industry” (to read an excerpt, click here). He says constructing that viewpoint took months of in-depth research, and the experience of legally growing medical marijuana for sale to dispensaries.

“We’re reaching a critical mass now,” he says. “If you think about it, there are 16 states that have passed medical marijuana laws since 1996. In the last 15-17 years, that’s an amazing accomplishment if you think about it, because this has been a prohibited substance for nearly 75 years.”

Nationwide polling from the Pew Research Centershows that support for marijuana legalization has grown in recent decades. But the most recent poll shows that the majority of Americans are still against it: 41 percent think the use should be legal, while 52 percent are opposed. That’s compared to 1969, when only 12 percent said the use of marijuana should be legal.

What Colorado voters decide this November on the topic is anyone’s guess right now. California was the most recent state to float a proposal in 2010 and it failed by a 54 to 47 percent margin.

According to CSU’s Kyle Saunders, both proponents and opponents face a difficult task of piercing through the election year rhetoric and the din of political ads.

“Especially in a time of a tough economy, there are so many other issues that are going to be more pressing that will consume the bandwidth of voter attention,” he says.

Both sides of the legalization initiative Amendment 64 will be organizing in the coming months. The next phase of this political drama could come on July 18. That’s when organizers of a second legalization initiative are required to turn over signatures to secure their place on the ballot.

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