And while the Democrats’ proposed legislation has a number of different components, objections to decriminalizing (let alone legalizing) marijuana fly in the face of public opinion of Americans overall and many Republicans.
Take a look at the three polls released on the topic in 2021:
What’s notable in both the Pew and Quinnipiac polls is that a lot of Republicans are for legalizing. In the Pew poll, 47% were for it, compared with 52% against it. In the Quinnipiac poll, 62% were for it, compared with 32% who were against it. (The CBS poll didn’t make a breakdown by party available.)
Interestingly, marijuana actually has one of the smaller partisan splits of any major issue. The average of the Quinnipiac and Pew polls showed that Democrats were only 21 points more likely to be in favor of backing legalization.
For comparison, keeping abortion legal had a 54-point split between Democrats (76% in favor) and Republicans (22% in favor) in a May Quinnipiac poll.
This shouldn’t be too surprising when looking at the success of marijuana ballot measures nationwide.
Last year, legalizing recreational marijuana passed comfortably in the blue state of New Jersey (67%), the purple state of Arizona and the deeply red states of Montana (57%) and South Dakota (54%). Former President Donald Trump lost New Jersey by 16 points and won South Dakota by 26 points.
The Democratic bill in the Senate also aims to expunge the federal criminal records of nonviolent marijuana offenders. Again, this is popular. The CBS poll found that 59% of Americans were in favor of expunging the convictions of nonviolent offenders in the states where it would be made legal.
Part of what is likely happening is that many Republicans are part of specific demographics where legalizing marijuana is not popular.
One of the things to know about marijuana legalization is that while there isn’t a major inter-party split there is a fairly large intra-party age split.
Among Republicans, 63% under the age of 30 said recreational marijuana use should be legal in the Pew poll. That dropped to just 27% among Republicans 65 and older.
The age gap is important because it may make Republican senators either believe marijuana legalization is less popular than it is or at the very least make them more likely to think that marijuana should not be legal.
That’s because Democratic and Republican senators are disproportionately old. A majority (27 of 50) of Republican senators are 65 or older. Another two are 64 years old. In fact, just four Republican senators are from an age bracket (under age 50) where a majority of Republican respondents in the Pew poll were for recreational marijuana legalization.
The large age split on the issue could explain, too, why President Joe Biden isn’t for legalizing marijuana. (He is for decriminalizing.) Just 32% of Americans who are 75 or older in the Pew survey want marijuana legalized.
The other factor at play could be an ideological one. In that same Pew poll, moderate and liberal Republicans (60%) were far more likely to want recreational marijuana to be legal than conservative Republicans (39%).
The ideological split within the GOP ranks is important because politically engaged Republicans are far more likely to be conservative than politically less engaged Republicans. This means that they are likely overrepresented in Congress compared with the Republican electorate at large.
Additionally, Republican lawmakers are likely hearing disproportionately more from the types of Republican voters (politically engaged) who are opposed to marijuana legalization than for it.
And keep in mind that marijuana simply isn’t a top issue for most of the public. The public at large isn’t likely to punish Republicans for opposing the decriminalization of marijuana.
The fact is that marijuana laws do not have a great effect on many Americans. Most people don’t smoke marijuana, and the group who is disproportionately arrested compared with its marijuana usage is Black Americans. There aren’t many of them in the Republican Party.
And with a 50-50 Senate, marijuana decriminalization likely isn’t going anywhere without Republicans on board.