Voters want marijuana to be taxed and regulated.

New Mexico provides a good example of how important the specific phrasing is for marijuana polling results. Pointing out that a proposal to legalize marijuana would also “regulate” and “tax” it dramatically increases support.

The Albuquerque Journal used Research & Polling Inc. of Albuquerque NM to ask the very basic question: “Do you think the use of marijuana should be legal in New Mexico, or not?” Using this question they found only 40 percent supported making marijuana legal while 47 percent opposed.

But the Drug Policy Alliance recently used the same pollster and when the question specifically made it clear that legal marijuana would be regulated and taxed  they found majority support for legalization . From the Albuquerque Journal:

A poll done by the same firm last year for the Drug Policy Alliance asked a more detailed question: whether marijuana should be legalized for adults so that it could be taxed and regulated, like alcohol, with restrictions on where it could be bought and consumed.

Fifty-two percent of voters statewide who were polled said they either strongly supported or somewhat supported that proposal.

“It’s interesting that when voters are asked straight up whether marijuana use should be legalized, a plurality say it should not,” Sanderoff said. “However, support levels increase significantly when voters are given information about what marijuana legislation may entail, namely tax revenue and regulation.”

A huge 12 point swing caused by a seemingly modest change on how the legalization question is asked isn’t unusual. We have seen this same basic pattern in other polls. For example, a Granite State poll found only 51 percent supported “legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal recreational use in New Hampshire,” but when the pollster described about the tax and regulate provisions in the legalization bill pending in the state legislature, support for that proposal jumped 60 percent.

There a three key takeaways from this: First, whenever you see a poll result about marijuana legalization always check to see what specific question they asked. If the poll doesn’t mention that plans to legalize marijuana include having it regulation they could be dramatically understating the level of support.

Second, Many people want marijuana to be well-regulated. Voters are turning against prohibition but are not becoming pro-pot. Many will only support legalization if they know reasonable controls and restrictions will go in place.

Finally, legalization campaigns need to highlight these regulations and taxes in their proposals. If they are running a ballot initiative they should try to make sure “regulation” appears predominately in the official title/summary and stress the proposed regulation in their public outreach. As we saw with Proposition 19 in California and Measure 80 in Oregon, criticizing the proposed regulations as inadequate or flawed seemed to be one of the most effective attacks.

Jon Walker is the author of After Legalization: Understanding the future of marijuana policy

Image by Modern Scribe Photography™ under Creative Commons license