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The Trouble with Marijuana and Legislators

Lawmakers think that supporting medical marijuana is a radical move that will get them in trouble. It's not, and it won't.
 
 
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For a long time many of us have puzzled over why overwhelming public support for legal access to medical marijuana has not translated into legislative action. A new Zogby poll conducted in Vermont and Rhode Island, released March 29, may have solved the mystery.

Every time medical marijuana has been on a state or local ballot it has passed overwhelmingly -- most recently by 83 percent to 17 percent in Burlington, Vermont this March 2. State and national polls consistently show support levels ranging from 60 percent up to 80 percent or higher. This support comes from virtually all segments of the electorate: Young and old, liberal, and conservative, rich and poor, Republican, Democrat or independent.

Yet politicians remain, for the most part, scared to death of the issue. Efforts to pass medical marijuana bills through state legislatures have had surprisingly tough going, considering the overwhelming public support they enjoy. Successful efforts, such as the bill passed and signed into law in Maryland last year, have sometimes required painful compromises that limit the protection given to patients.

On the national level, even liberal members of Congress representing states where the voters have passed medical marijuana laws have sometimes been afraid to openly oppose federal policies that criminalize cancer and AIDS patients who use medical marijuana.

Why are they so afraid? Politicians usually fall all over themselves to jump on issues that have better than two-to-one public support. The new Zogby poll results may contain the answer.

Asked if they support legal access to medical marijuana for seriously ill patients, the results from voters in both states were consistent with previous polling: 71 percent yes to 21 percent no in Vermont, and 69 percent yes to 26 percent no in Rhode Island.

But the new poll added a question that has not often been asked: "Regardless of your own opinion, do you think the majority of people in [Vermont or Rhode Island] support making marijuana medically available, or do you think the majority opposes making marijuana medically available?" Here the results were very different:

Vermont:
Think majority supports 37.6 percent
Think majority opposes: 37.1 percent
Not sure: 25.3 percent

Rhode Island:
Think majority supports 26.5 percent
Think majority opposes 55.9 percent
Not sure 17.6 percent

Voters support medical marijuana by a whopping margin, yet they think they're in the minority. Nothing in the polling explains the reasons for this, but it is reasonable to assume that the saturation prevalence of "drugs are bad/marijuana is dangerous" propaganda in the media (often parroted uncritically by mainstream news outlets) is a major reason. Support for protecting medical marijuana patients from arrest is a thoroughly mainstream position, but you wouldn't know it from most media coverage of the issue.

It's a safe bet that legislators and their campaign staffs are under the same misapprehension as voters. They think that supporting medical marijuana is a radical move that will get them in trouble with their constituents. It's not, and it won't.

But our elected representatives won't know that unless we teach them.

Bruce Mirken is communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, based in Washington, D.C.