Assessing Public Opinion On Cannabis Legalisation

Earlier this week the results of the latest Behaviour and Attitudes lifestyle poll were released. The survey looked at the health and lifestyle of people in Ireland, and it included a question on cannabis legalisation.

According to the opinion poll just over a third of people in Ireland believe cannabis should be legalised. 36% of the respondents expressed their belief that the government should enact legislation to regulate the use of cannabis.

Of those surveyed just 4% stated they use cannabis at least once a week. While 88% of respondents said they never or rarely used it. In comparison we see that 30% of respondents said they enjoy alcohol at least once a week.

Perhaps what is most surprising, and some might argue encouraging is that almost 90% of respondents said they never or rarely use cannabis, yet one in three of these still favours law change.

It is often suggested that activists are merely preaching to the converted and that support for law change is not as strong among non-users. As this survey suggests around one in three non-users may also agree with reforming cannabis laws.

How strong the actual support among non-users is though remains questionable. ~

Arguably a question asked on its own merit without context or ongoing debate is likely to lead to somewhat inaccurate results. People may answer more on instinct rather than belief.

Essentially we are talking about hard and soft support.

Hard support describes individuals like activists and prohibitionists whose views are essentially set in stone. Soft support arguably makes up the rest of society, who are in the middle with no particularly strong views on the matter. Soft support would be more likely to fluctuate from one side of the debate to the other.

If we were to imagine the cannabis legalisation question raised during a scenario where a referendum was taking place (not that it would, as it is not a constitutional matter) then things might be different.

In this scenario debates requiring equal input from both sides would be taking place across the media platforms of print, radio, television, and social media. Thus arguments from enthusiasts and prohibitionists would be heard. The more negative points such as the gateway theory, mental health issues, regardless if true or not, would be brought to the fore.

I think in the context of ongoing debate and the way some media, if not all, might try to shape the debate, then support among non-users might fall.

I think we can look at the marriage equality referendum as an example. Most early polls show 70-80% in favour, yet once we get into the meat and bone of debates many analysts and activists suggest this figure won’t be replicated on voting day. In fact some warned over the weekend that actual support maybe significantly lower due to reservations

Of course this argument works both ways and one could suggest once debates begin that more would switch to the pro-legalisation side. However I think activists should always view soft support as being temperamental and be weary of support slipping once negativity hits the media.

So how correct are these polls? A lot of people complained on Irish Cannabis News that they didn’t find the results accurate.

I would argue such polls are a better gauge of opinion then any online poll whose results tend to be skewed by activists on both sides. Also research carried out by polling groups has to meet certain standards and criteria in order to be considered fair and representative. Online polls are less representative.

It would be interesting to see proper public consultation take place, and some form of wider debate, to actually assess the situation as officially possible.

Looking at other data in more detail, we see only 4% of respondents claimed to be regular cannabis users. I would say this is fairly accurate, but that perhaps the actual figure is a slightly higher. People will occasionally tell pollsters different things than what they actually believe, often going for more socially acceptable answers.

Imagine you were stopped on the street, or polled by phone, and you were asked whether you used cannabis or not. Surely there is a chance in that moment you might say no, given cannabis use is still taboo.

It is not an uncommon thing. Political analysts will often use the example of a political party and their opinion poll showings, an Irish example being Fianna Fail. Often in opinion polls ahead of, and exit polling after elections, unpopular established parties (less so with newer parties without support base etc.) will do better than the opinion polls suggested.

It is argued that for some voters because of the bad press that exists around these parties, it is more socially acceptable to lie about their answer for fear of judgement. Although in their defence the desire to feel accepted is one most if not all humans feel.

Arguably since there is a taboo around cannabis I think there is a decent chance a number of respondents may hide their use.

Going back to the main finding of the poll, I would suggest this figure of 36% support for cannabis law change is fairly accurate. This figure is similar to the one revealed by the Paddy Power / Red C poll conducted in January of last year. The results from that one showed that support for a change in law stands at 38%

Last year the Eurobarometer Young People and Drugs Survey found that 56% of young Irish people would support the regulation of cannabis. Although this was a somewhat limited survey as was respondents were only aged between 15 and 24.

Another aspect to keep in mind is that in reputable national polls regarding legalisation in America only passed the 50% mark in the last few years. This despite decades of activism, state initiatives around medical use and other elements that don’t exist in the Irish context.

So arguably it is unlikely that support would be higher here, but it is not unreasonable to assume that support here is not far off it. So poll showings of high 30s or slightly over 40% should not be a total shock. While the survey showing of 56% can be considered to be slightly inflated given the younger respondents involved.

One final aspect, and thank you readers if you’ve come this far!

These polls often just look at recreational use, anecdotal evidence and stats from surveys that also look at medical use, see support for medical use tends to be much higher than recreational. So while we maybe less optimistic about recreational use being acceptable and legal here soon, medical use is not an unrealistic ambition.

I suppose I should end with the acknowledgment that even if opinion polls go over 50% here it doesn’t necessarily mean law change will happen. There is still a lot of work to be done by activists, in swaying both public and perhaps more importantly political opinion.


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