Despite Popular Support, State and Local Officials Heavily Divided on Marijuana Legalization

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Connecting state and local government leaders

Route Fifty's new survey shows local government officials are particularly skeptical.

State and local leaders are divided over whether to legalize adult use of marijuana, as well as the benefits and challenges that come with it, according to a new poll of public sector officials conducted by Route Fifty.

Approximately one-third of state and local officials support of legalizing adult use while one-third are opposed. Almost one-third of respondents reported neither opposing nor supporting legalization.

Notably, local officials are significantly more opposed to legalization of the drug than their state government counterparts. Forty-five percent of state officials are supportive of legalization, compared to only a quarter of local officials.

(Route Fifty)

The findings also vary from polls of the general public. More than 60 percent of Americans supported marijuana legalization, according to a Pew poll from earlier this year. Gallup found “record-high” support for legalization late last year, with 64 percent of the public in favor.

When asked about the gap between public officials opinions and that of the general public, Erik Altieri, executive director for NORML, an organization that is dedicated to moving public opinion toward the legalization of adult use of marijuana, did not see the gap as a problem.

“I’m actually rather encouraged by this breakdown,” he told Route Fifty.

“Having around 30 percent of individuals saying they neither oppose or support, I’d imagine that makes them more available and more open to hearing arguments in favor if they are not immediately staking out a prohibitionist stance,” Altieri added. “Which for decades was the default position for these officials.”

Below are five other key takeaways from our poll:

1.) Those from states with legalized marijuana are much more supportive of legalized adult use.

Perhaps our least shocking finding, but worth noting: those in states with legalized recreational marijuana were significantly less likely to oppose or strongly oppose marijuana legalization for adult use. Just 20 percent of public officials from states where adult use is legalized said they were opposed to the drug being legal for adult use. In contrast, in states that have no recreational or medical marijuana provisions 47 percent opposed legalization of adult use.

About 40 percent of those from states with medical marijuana provisions opposed legalization of adult use.

(Route Fifty)

Kevin Bommer, deputy director of the Colorado Municipal League, suggested the differences between officials in legal and non-legal states reflected the experience in Colorado.

Before Colorado had passed Amendment 64, which legalized adult recreation use, there was significant opposition, he explained. “The ‘just say no’ crowd,” he said, “it’s gotten a lot smaller.”

Bommer also said he thought public officials in states which border legalization states may be particularly more opposed due to amount of illegal transportation of marijuana they are forced to deal with from a law enforcement standpoint.

2.) State officials are much more excited about the potential advantages of legalized marijuana.

Beyond simple support, state government officials are consistently more likely to see advantages to legalization than their local counterparts.

When it came to seeing increased revenues as an advantage of legalizing marijuana, there was a 20-point gap—70 percent of state officials, but only 50 percent of local officials—that saw increased revenue for government programs and services as an advantage.

Similarly, there was almost a 30-point gap between state and local respondents (68 percent of state versus 41 percent of local respondents) who saw decreased spending on law enforcement and incarceration as a potential upside of legalizing pot.

Overall, our respondents cited increased government revenue as the top potential advantage of legalized adult use of marijuana, followed by decreased law enforcement / incarceration expenditures and a decrease in illegal marijuana production and distribution.

(Route Fifty)

“Some of the states,” Bommer said, “unlike Colorado, somewhat stiff-armed local governments from being able to participate in any of the revenue which is particularly frustrating because that’s where the action’s at.”

Altieri said at the state level in places like California, for instance, officials are generally supportive of legalization. But that when it comes down to the county and municipal level, it’s not uncommon for city and county councils put up recreational marijuana retail bans.

“Local officials are even more hesitant to make big sweeping changes than state officials because they are dealing with smaller constituencies that are more apt to fluctuate in larger margins on any specific issue,” he added.

3.) State and local officials have significant concerns about drugged driving and its impact on community and neighborhood culture.

When asked about potential challenges of legalization, three-quarters of public officials cited drugged driving—making it far and away the greatest concern.

Over half of respondents, 57 percent, were concerned about the effects on neighborhood or community culture. And just under half cited negative consequences for public health.

(Route Fifty)

4.) Officials are concerned about federal repercussions.

Half of respondents cited repercussions to state and local jurisdictions that are non-compliant with federal policies as a challenge.

This survey was conducted during late February and early March, following a January decision by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to rescind Obama-era Justice Department marijuana enforcement guidelines that states with legalized marijuana had looked to.

Altieri said he thought that may have played into the results.

Bommer downplayed the fallout from Sessions’ move in Colorado.

“We didn’t flinch,” he said.

“The U.S. attorney here in Colorado said, ‘doesn’t change how we’re doing things,’” Bommer added. “I don’t think folks were too worried about that—especially based on the assurances of the U.S. attorney and other U.S. attorneys in other states.”

Just last week, U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, announced that he had struck a deal with the White House to ensure the Justice Department would not target the marijuana industry in states that had legalized it, and would support congressional legislation to that end.

5) State and local officials believe they should be leading the way on marijuana policy.

Our state and local respondents overwhelmingly believe state and local authorities should be in charge of marijuana laws over their federal counterparts. Only one-quarter believe the federal government should be in charge on the issue. More than 60 percent believe state and local authorities should take the lead.

(Route Fifty)

On that note, our respondents seem to be in line with broader trends.

A recent Quinnipiac poll shows 73 percent of voters oppose the government enforcing federal laws against marijuana in states that have already legalized medical or recreational cannabis.

2018 looks like it could be a watershed year for legalized cannabis. Vermont has already approved legislation that legalized marijuana for adult use, and a handful of states actively considering legislation or ballot initiatives around legalizing adult use of the drug.

MORE ABOUT OUR POLL: Government Business Council, working with Route Fifty, surveyed 121 state and local leaders between Feb. 28, 2018 and March 6, 2018.

Mitch Herckis is Senior Director of Programs for Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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