The headlines about the newest Marquette Law School Poll are focusing on the 2014 race for governor and that’s certainly no surprise. Let’s be honest. For the news media (I’m still a member), the horserace is catnip. We can’t resist. But there’s another question in the Poll that may generate—forgive me—some buzz of its own. “Do you think the use of marijuana should be made legal, or not?” Of the 400 people who responded, 50 per cent said yes, marijuana should be legal. Forty-five per cent said it should not. (See question 33 of the poll results here.)
Surprising? Perhaps. But why is it significant? To be sure, marijuana will not be a major issue in next year’s elections in Wisconsin. We’re not about to become the next Colorado or Washington, where in statewide referenda voters made recreational pot use legal. We’re also not about to join the list of 20 states that permit marijuana for medical use, although two Democratic state lawmakers, Jon Erpenbach and Chris Taylor, are proposing we do just that. Erpenbach and Taylor say the public is ahead of the politicians on this one, and the Marquette Law School Poll suggests they may be right. Furthermore, a recent Gallup Poll found even stronger support for legalizing marijuana. For the first time ever, a clear majority of Americans, 58 percent, favored legalization.
This is not to say that the marijuana debate is over. The director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (i.e. drug czar) Gil Kerlikowske made the case for not legalizing pot during a visit with me at the Law School last March. Kerlikowske warned about the drug’s new potency. He also wryly noted that he found it curious that in California, where medical marijuana use is permitted, those with the greatest medical needs seemed to be 30 year old men, a generally healthy demographic.
But no matter how you feel about it, the increased public support for legalization may point to something larger going on in America. For a growing segment of the population, the marijuana discussion seems to be about personal freedom. Esquire Magazine took note of this in its November issue, publishing the results of a poll conducted by two well-known firms. One worked for the Obama campaign, the other for the Romney campaign. You can see the results here.
The survey suggests the emergence of a “New American Center.” And in that center, there is a core belief that the individual knows best. The Esquire poll asked respondents in the center to agree or disagree with the following statement: “government should not legislate how Americans can behave in their personal lives, such as owning guns, abortion, marriage and marijuana.” Those are some pretty disparate, contentious issues. And yet, 54 per cent agreed with the statement. Eighteen per cent were neutral, while just 28 per cent disagreed with it.
The results from the Marquette Law School Poll also reflect this libertarian streak. In addition to the support for making marijuana legal, the Poll found that 56 per cent of respondents opposed a new state law requiring women seeking an abortion to have an ultrasound, while 38 per cent approved. And for the first time in the Poll’s history, a majority of Wisconsin residents, 53 per cent, said same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. Another 24 per cent supported civil unions.
Public opinion in Wisconsin appears to be moving quickly on issues like gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana, especially among younger voters who are challenging long-held laws, beliefs and traditions. But public policy that reflects those changing attitudes is a different matter. A constitutional amendment banning gay marriage remains on the books in Wisconsin, approved by voters just seven years ago. As noted earlier, state legislators passed new abortion legislation this year. And there’s no real political appetite for changing the state’s marijuana laws. Still, politicians and parties might be wise not to fixate on the Poll’s horserace headlines for too long. There’s another important story about the Wisconsin electorate playing out just beneath the surface.