Thursday, May 28, 2009

Marijuana Legalization Is Coming, Says Pollster

Nate Silver reads the numbers.

Last month, I missed this crucial article, penned by the inestimable Nate Silver. Silver, you may recall, is the numbers nerd who shamed all conventional pollsters during the run-up to the presidential election—and then proceeded to predict the Electoral College vote with perfect accuracy.

So when Nate Silver takes a hard look at statistics having to do with American sentiment about marijuana legalization, it behooves us to take his findings seriously. In an April 5 post called “Why Marijuana Legalization is Gaining Momentum,” on his blog, Silver lays out the inevitable chronology.

“Back in February, we detailed how record numbers of Americans -- although certainly not yet a majority -- support the idea of legalizing marijuana,” Silver writes. “It turns out that there may be a simple explanation for this: an ever-increasing fraction of Americans have used pot at some point in their lifetimes.”

According to Silver’s number crunching, the peak pot year in anyone’s life is on or about age 20—duh—with most people reaching some sort of usage plateau between the ages of 30 and 50. The important point, Silver writes, has to do with the fraction of adults who have used. This is a dual-peaked distribution, “with one peak occurring among adults who are roughly age 50 now, and would have come of age in the 1970s, and another among adults in their early 20s. Generation X, meanwhile, in spite of its reputation for slackertude, were somewhat less eager consumers of pot than the generations either immediately preceding or proceeding them.”

Furthermore, reports of lifetime usage drop off precipitously after 55. “About half of 55-year-olds have used marijuana at some point in their lives, but only about 20 percent of 65-year-olds have.”

What does this tell us? While there is certainly not an exact correspondence between people who have smoked pot and people who support legalization, Silver ventures to guess that the link is fairly strong. What we have here, he argues, is a “fairly strong generation gap when it comes to pot legalization. As members of the Silent Generation are replaced in the electorate by younger voters, who are more likely to have either smoked marijuana themselves or been around those that have, support for legalization is likely to continue to gain momentum.”


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