Study: Prohibition Is Driven by Morality, Not Risk

By Andrew Ward on September 15, 2018

Cannabis opponents worry that the plant is a dangerous gateway drug, right? Well, not exactly. 

According to a 2017 study that delved into political and moral views on cannabis, morality was the primary driver behind prohibition, while the associated risks made no impact whatsoever. The researchers found that conservative opposition to legalization focused on authority and "purity" over safety. Likewise, when presented with arguments that focused on morality (especially if coming from a religious leader), the person would likely change his or her stance. 

The study involved 379 individuals across 15 religious states. Participants were asked to explain their views on cannabis before completing a 30-item moral foundations (MF) questionnaire that measured five concerns (harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, purity/sanctity). Likewise, the researchers split the questions into two subsets: moral relevance (the extent to which several considerations are important) and moral judgement (the extent to which they agree/disagree with several morally-related statements). 

Researchers noted a significant impact to scores based on the order in which they took the moral relevance or moral judgment portions of the questionnaire. Notably, taking the moral relevance subscale first resulted in lower MF overall scores, which significantly impacted the harm dimension while having a marginal effect on the purity dimension. 

In all, the study found that political views "significantly correlated" with feelings towards cannabis legalization. As expected, liberals were more likely to support legalization with conservatives showing an increasing openness to it. Though trailing by double digits, 57 percent of conservatives favored legalization, compared to 70 percent of moderates and 86 percent of liberals. 

This glimpse into 379 varying viewpoints reveals the extent to which political and religious demonization can impact a debate. The harm commonly associated with cannabis does not seem to impact the discussion, which might suggest that people don't believe cannabis is as harmful as they once had. However, the study also found that specific views on morality continue to divide the topic and nation. And when the opposition cites God's law and applies it to a plant that God presumably created during a very productive six-day stretch, the whole discussion can become a giant convoluted mess.    

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