Sitting Presidents Have Biggest Influence Over Public Cannabis Approval

By Lindsey Weedston 09/30/19

Some believe that if a Democrat takes office in 2020, federal cannabis legalization will soon follow, as all major candidates support the issue.

Image: 
Barack Obama on a phone call
As of October 2018, 62% of the US population favors federal cannabis legalization. Source: Barack Obama Presidential Library

recent study found that the sitting U.S. president has a high level of influence over public perceptions around cannabis and whether the substance should be legalized on a state or federal level.

The study, published in the journal Defiant Behavior, looked at “the relationship between the president and Americans’ attitudes toward marijuana legalization from 1975 through 2016” using data from the General Social Survey and the American Presidency Project,

“Findings indicate that confidence in the executive branch, fear of crime, and presidential drug rhetoric predict attitudes toward legalization despite controls for other factors such as estimated levels of marijuana use and arrests,” write study authors Dr. Richard J. Stringer and Professor Scott R. Maggard. 

Shifting Attitudes Toward Marijuana 

Over the past decade, presidential attitudes toward the Schedule I drug have shifted from “just say no” to the current president, who has expressed a desire to leave the legalization and regulation of cannabis up to the states and focus the energy of the Justice Department elsewhere, following in the footsteps of former President Barack Obama.

Trump reiterated this stance as recently as late August, after he was asked by a reporter whether the drug would be federally legalized while he was in office.

“We’re going to see what’s going on. It’s a very big subject and right now we are allowing states to make that decision,” Trump said at the press briefing. “A lot of states are making that decision, but we’re allowing states to make that decision.”

According to Marijuana Moment, the study on presidential influence over public attitudes toward cannabis found that for every percent increase in the number of words about drugs in a president’s State of the Union address, odds of favoring legalization decrease by 6%.

At the same time, those who have high confidence in the administration “correlated with 29% decrease in supporting legalization.”

As of October 2018, 62% of the U.S. population favored federal cannabis legalization.

Saying No To "Just Say No"

The data examined by researchers starts with the administration of former President Gerald Ford, who was more moderate on marijuana than his predecessor, Richard Nixon, who launched the failed “war on drugs.”

However, Ford’s presidency did not result in much change to federal drug policy. The Reagan administration then launched the famous “Just Say No” campaign, resulting in a 27% drop in public support for cannabis.

It’s largely expected that if a Democratic candidate takes the Oval Office in 2020, federal cannabis legalization will soon follow, as all major candidates have expressed support for this action.

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Lindsey Weedston is a Seattle area writer focused on mental health and addiction, politics, human rights, and various social issues. Her work has appeared in The Establishment, Ravishly, ThinkProgress, Little Things, Yes! Magazine, and others. You can find her daily writings at NotSorryFeminism.com. Twitter: https://twitter.com/LindseyWeedston