How and why have attitudes about cannabis legalization changed so much?

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Since the late 1990s public opinion about cannabis legalization has become drastically more liberal, and some states have begun to legalize cannabis for recreational use. Why have attitudes changed so much? Prior research has considered a few of the reasons for this change, but this is the first comprehensive and empirically-based study to consider the wide range of potential causes for how and why this happened. We use data from the General Social Survey, National Study of Drug Use and Health, and word searches from the New York Times. We find that attitudes largely liberalized via intracohort changes. Most Americans developed more liberal views, regardless of their race and ethnicity, gender, education, religious or political affiliation, or religious engagement. Changes in cannabis use have had minimal effects on attitudes, and legalization of cannabis has not prompted attitude change in neighboring states. As to root causes, evidence suggests that a decrease in religious affiliation, a decline in punitiveness, and a shift in media framing all contributed to changing attitudes.




Felson, J., Adamczyk, A., & Thomas, C. (2019). How and why have attitudes about cannabis legalization changed so much? Social Science Research, 78, 12–27.

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