Recreational Cannabis Legalization in Washington State: Residents’ Opinions and Perceptions of Effects Five Years After Implementation
Beltz, Lindsey Marie
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Washington became one of the first states to legalize recreational cannabis in 2012. Its residents are now in a unique position to evaluate the lived effects of a monumental shift in the state’s drug law. This project assessed the effects of cannabis law reform as perceived by Washington residents, tested a newly designed measure of cannabis use that could increase the accuracy of national data, and explored concerns, opinions, and use in the context of recreational legalization. Data collection included a representative, random-sample survey of Washington residents (n=538) aimed to further understanding of the effects of legalization and a non-representative survey utilizing an online panel to experimentally test whether how we ask about cannabis use impacts people’s answers. Overall, positive effects were the most frequently reported when residents were questioned about what effects they have noticed as resulting from legalization. These included decriminalization, economic benefits, and destigmatization. People remain concerned about drugged driving and increased use, although initial evidence does not support these concerns. Washington residents’ perspective also revealed issues related to location and visibility of dispensaries and advertising. Overwhelmingly, however, residents’ responses were positive. It is imperative that accurate self-report data are collected to know whether legalization increases rates of cannabis use. Experimental tests show that, in states where cannabis has not been legalized for recreational use, using the words “marijuana and hashish” in a survey question resulted in lower reported rates of use than the words “any cannabis products.” This is likely due to the stigma associated with the term marijuana compared to cannabis. These results indicate that national surveys may produce inaccurate estimates of rates of cannabis use. Washingtonians generally remain supportive of recreational legalization. Opinions that have changed since the vote in 2012 tend now to be more positive. Use may have become more commonplace, but few new users have been created. Some report decreasing their alcohol use by substituting cannabis and 38% said the same about opioid use, providing evidence for substitution effects. While opinion is positive and stigma has lessened, pockets of resistance to legalization remain and are similar to national trends.