Weed the People
Since the We the People petitioning system was launched on Whitehouse.gov in September 2011, more than half a million people have contributed their signatures in support of the legalization or rescheduling of marijuana in the United States. We’ve mapped and analyzed every signature to discover which regions, states, and counties have shown the most support over the last five years.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees citizens the right to petition the government, and since September 22, 2011, it’s been possible to do so online through the We the People petitioning system. All kinds of petitions have been created over the last five years, but only ones with more than 100,000 signatures receive a reply from White House staff.
To create the dataset we used in this analysis, we downloaded every petition with a topic or description that contained the word “marijuana” (or any of its common synonyms). We then went through them by hand to filter out any that were geographically biased. For example, if a petition called for a certain person to be pardoned for a marijuana-related crime in a specific state, we removed it. That left us with 60 petitions – created between September 2011 and May 2015 with more than 552,000 signatures among them – that shared the common goal of legalizing or rescheduling marijuana at the federal level (or drastically reducing the penalties for its use).
The half a million signatures contributed over the last five years included all 50 states, as well as D.C. Of the data, 97% also included the contributors’ counties, boroughs, and ZIP codes. We mapped these, beginning with the nine U.S. Census Bureau divisions.
The results of an analysis are only as good as the data it uses. So what does our dataset actually represent? The most accurate summary would probably be: People who support the idea of legalizing marijuana at the federal level and who feel inclined to use the We the People petitioning system to show it. This means that as well as their feelings on current federal laws regarding marijuana, a person’s political affiliation and age might also have played a part in whether they contributed their signature to one of the petitions we’ve analyzed. We’ll talk more about this concept in a moment, but first, let’s address the maps above.
When we look at which census divisions have provided the most signatures per 10,000 residents between September 2011 and May 2015, three stand out: Mountain, New England, and West North Central. We’ve made these regions bold in the tables above, so they’re easier to spot. The states that comprise the Mountain region have been the most vocal overall, having ranked in the top three divisions in four of the five years.
Divisions only reveal so much, though. After all, Alaska and California both reside in the Pacific division yet couldn’t be more different when it comes to their populations and political affiliations. So let’s zoom in on another level.
Here’s where the story gets more interesting: The map and table above again include all 500,000-plus signatures from 2011 to 2015 but this time at the state level and with extra information on states’ political affiliations (based on the 2012 Presidential Election results) and current marijuana laws.
The biggest result here is nine of the 10 states that have contributed the most signatures per 10,000 residents have laws that make the recreational or medical use of marijuana legal within their borders (as of April 2015). In fact, all five states that currently allow the recreational and medical use of marijuana sit in the top 10 above. Perhaps this is because their residents are trailblazers who, having experienced a more relaxed approach to the enforcement (or non-enforcement) of marijuana-related laws, wish to see a similar attitude adopted nationwide. Or it could be a demographic thing.
Seven of the top 10 states were majority Democrat in 2012 and, according to a survey by Pew Research in 2014, there is a significant gap between how Democrats and Republicans feel about the prospect of marijuana becoming legal everywhere. Specifically, 17% of Republicans in the “Silent Generation” (born 1928 to 1945) said they support the idea, compared to 44% of Democrats in the same category. The situation is the same for the other age brackets: 63% of Republican Millennials (born 1981 to 1996) favor marijuana being made legal, in contrast to 77% of Millennial Democrats.
Political affiliation is probably only part of the reason certain states have shown more support than others. Another major factor could be the legal milestones each state has or hasn’t experienced in regard to how marijuana is controlled in it. Let’s split the 60 petitions we analyzed by the years they were created to see which states showed the most support in each year as well as what significant legal events occurred in the same time frames.
The rankings above reveal a few interesting things. First, certain states have shown consistently high levels of support for the legalization of marijuana year after year, most notably: Montana, Colorado, Oregon, Maine, Vermont, Washington, and New Hampshire. These states are already famous for their relaxed laws on the cultivation, possession, sale, and medical use of the drug. There are also a few states that have consistently contributed far fewer signatures per capita than others across the five years, especially Mississippi, which was in the bottom 10 every year.
Marijuana is still illegal in Mississippi, except for its very limited and tightly controlled use in certain medical situations. However, this can’t be the only reason Mississippi appeared in the bottom 10 so often because California did as well (also four out of the five years), and its laws are a bit more relaxed than Mississippi’s. (Medical marijuana is legal in California and possession of up to one ounce is punishable by an infraction similar to a traffic violation.)
One potential reason the rankings fluctuate could be due to certain state-specific legal milestones occurring in certain years, which bring marijuana’s legality to the forefront of public consciousness, in turn driving people to show their support through online petitions. The tables above list several such events, including the legalization of recreational use in the whole of Oregon in 2014 (Oregon ranked second in the same year), and in Portland, Maine, the year before (Maine ranked first). But this is just a theory, and there are a couple states that go against it. Georgia, for example, legalized the medical use of marijuana this year, but – as yet – doesn’t appear in the top 10 list for 2015.
You may also have noticed that the numbers get smaller over time. In 2011, the top ranking state, Montana, had 16 signatures per 10,000 residents. In 2015, the top ranking state, North Dakota, had only 3.1. There are four potential explanations for this. First, the petitioning system has probably lost some of the momentum and popularity it had in its first two years online (2011–2012 produced 394,624 signatures for marijuana-related petitions, compared to 116,060 in the 2013–2014 bracket). Next, many people presumably sign one petition, and then lose interest in the platform and don’t sign another. The third and fourth reasons we’ll leave until the end of this article because they’re the most interesting.
Let’s zoom in once more to the final and, no doubt, most revealing level: counties.
Examining the data at county-level is invaluable because certain states contain cities – such as Austin and Houston, Texas – that differ wildly in their demographic profiles. The large map above shows the level of support the 3,000-plus counties have shown marijuana-related petitions over the five-year period, and the table ranks the top 50. For the table, we included only counties with at least 10,000 residents (the median U.S. county has 27,129 residents). This removed certain counties that ranked highly because of their extremely low populations. For example, Skagway Borough, Alaska, would have ranked fourth because it contributed seven signatures with a population of only 929. But with the 10,000-plus resident condition in place, the top 50 better represent which counties have actually been the most vocal about marijuana law reform.
And here, at county-level, is where political affiliations really stand out. Thirty-four of the top 50 counties were majority Democrat in 2012, which is 68% of the list. However, that’s based on political data from 2012, and the table includes data from 2011 to 2015. So we looked up the top 50 states in just 2012 (to match the year the political data was collected) and re-examined the count. The Democrat/Republican divide was still present but only in the top 25 states: 18 were Democrat. Across the top 50, the two parties were about equal. The political affiliation of residents is therefore presumably only one of several contributing factors. Another very plausible one is age. As Pew Research showed, younger people (regardless of which political party they favor) are more likely to support the idea of legalizing marijuana than older generations. For this reason, we checked what percentage of residents in each of the top 50 states were aged 20 to 29 and compared the results to the national average.
Williamsburg, Virginia, which showed more support than any other county over the five years, at 109.4 signatures per 10,000 residents (one in 100), had far more 20- to 29-year-olds than the national average (using 2012 census data): 38.1% versus 12.4% nationwide. The same trend can be seen across most of the other counties too: Benton, Oregon, (second) had 26.9% and Whitman, Washington, (fourth) had 40.4%. The top 50 had a combined average of 18.7%, which was just over six percentage points higher than the national county average.
We mentioned above that there are potentially four reasons that fewer people have been signing marijuana-related petitions over time since 2011. We’ll now describe reasons three and four, which were previously omitted. The third could be because several of the marijuana petitions we analyzed did receive enough signatures to earn an official response. In fact, a couple responses were written by the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske. In one response he said the legalization of marijuana was a complex issue due to its negative health effects but also acknowledged in a later response that it does have the potential to “provid[e] relief to individuals diagnosed with certain serious illnesses,” and also that it’s not possible to “arrest our way out of the problem.” Overall, though, many media outlets and supporters of marijuana legalization were not satisfied with the official responses. And maybe this drained the public’s interest in signing further petitions.
Or there’s the fourth possible reason, and it’s almost the opposite of the previous one. States are amending their law books in regard to marijuana at an unprecedented rate. Twenty-three states and D.C. now allow the use of the drug either recreationally or medically, and marijuana law reformers predict that California, Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada could follow suit in 2016. With the ball rolling faster than ever, perhaps fewer people feel they need to sign a petition to make a change; change just might just be inevitable.
Help For Those Who Need It
Some would argue that marijuana is less problematic than many other illicit substances – as it can exhibit relatively less pronounced forms of phenomena such as dependency, withdrawal, and overdose potential. This view of marijuana as a somewhat “mild” drug may, in part, contribute to those arguments that champion legal medical use or decriminalized recreational use. No matter what your own policy on marijuana legalization is, some individuals may feel that their lives are impacted by their daily use of it. Whether the impact is felt at school or work, with family and friends, or elsewhere, the problem can be very real. Having any perceptions that regular marijuana use is impeding daily life is reason enough for these people to seek help. If you are one of these people, and want to know your marijuana treatment options, call to speak with someone about them.
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