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Biden’s marijuana policy may change attitudes toward immigrants

As states decriminalize cannabis, Republicans soften toward immigrants, our research finds

- December 1, 2022

In October, President Biden announced he would pardon all prior federal convictions for simple possession of marijuana, urged governors to do the same under state laws, and launched a review of how marijuana is classified under federal law. Given long-standing links between criminalization and immigration enforcement, this announcement is likely to boost public support of immigrants.

In his announcement, Biden noted that people of color have been disproportionately arrested, prosecuted and convicted of marijuana offenses. In part, this is by design. U.S. drug laws have been deliberately crafted to criminalize and incarcerate people of color. More specifically, marijuana was criminalized to target Latino immigrants, particularly Mexicans.

The flip side is that as marijuana is decriminalized, attitudes toward Latinos and immigrants are likely to improve, our recent research finds.

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Anti-immigrant attitudes drove drug policy

Journalist Olivia Waxman reports that as anti-immigrant attitudes surged in the early 20th century, they coincided with increasingly popular associations of marijuana with immigrants. Political scientists Nancy Marion and Joshua Hill write that some people believed marijuana was a powerfully addictive drug that turned people into rapists and murderers; some Americans believed that, as they write, “All Mexicans are crazy, and this stuff is what makes them crazy.”

As the nation escalated its war on drugs, Latinos were among those caught in the crosshairs. As recently as 2019, in California, Latinos accounted for 42 percent of felony arrests for marijuana-related offenses. In January 2018, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders explicitly linked marijuana and immigration, saying that the Trump administration’s top priority was enforcing all federal law, “whether it’s marijuana or whether it’s immigration.”

Biden will pardon federal marijuana offenses. What will the states do?

Public attitudes toward marijuana and immigration are related

In a chapter we wrote for a recent book, we document the link between public attitudes toward marijuana and immigration. We compiled public views from 1994 to 2019, drawing from the Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel and Political Landscape Survey.

In the figure below, you can see that during that time, public attitudes at first opposed and then increasingly supported both legal marijuana and immigrants. In 2013, public support for both surpassed 50 percent for the first time and has since remained high for both issues, part of a general trend between 2010 and 2016 of increasingly socially liberal attitudes. More states were steadily legalizing marijuana and President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration, such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, became popular.

Figure: Joe R. Tafoya
Figure: Joe R. Tafoya

So how closely is policy toward marijuana associated with attitudes about immigrants? To find out, we leveraged the fact marijuana is legal in some but not all U.S. states. We identified surveys that collected attitudes about immigration and provided representative samples of the U.S. states. The National Election Pool conducted by Edison Research collected telephone and in-person interviews of absentee/early voters and voters exiting the polls on Election Day. Using the appropriate weights so that results match U.S. Census populations, we found support for immigrants in 2014 and opposition to Donald Trump’s immigration policies in 2018. Both were much higher in places where marijuana was legal.

In 2014, about half (57 percent) of voters from states where marijuana was criminalized believed undocumented immigrants working in the United States should be offered a chance to apply for legal status. In states where marijuana was legal, that rose to nearly three-fourths of voters (74 percent).

In 2018, polls found that in states where marijuana was criminalized, 41 percent of voters said Trump’s immigration policies were too tough. In contrast, 48 percent of voters in states where marijuana had been decriminalized said Trump’s policies were too tough. And in states where marijuana had been completely legalized, that figure rose to 57 percent.

Figure: Joe R. Tafoya
Figure: Joe R. Tafoya

Overall, as you can see in the figure above, in states where marijuana is legal, voters hold exceedingly supportive views of immigrants. While both shifts took place during a time when American public attitudes were becoming more socially liberal in general, the history of U.S. marijuana policy suggests that legalizing cannabis itself actually improves attitudes toward undocumented immigrants, especially Latinos.

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As Republicans begin to support legalizing marijuana, they become less hostile toward immigrants

Over the past two decades, attitudes toward marijuana have become more liberal among Democrats, Republicans and independents. By 2017, majorities of all three groups supported marijuana legalization. The latest Gallup polls show Republican support holding steady at 50 percent, compared to 83 percent of Democrats and 71 percent of independents.

Groups of Republicans who shifted to supporting legalizing marijuana were also more likely to develop positive attitudes toward immigrants. This happened in California, both after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed SB1449 decriminalizing marijuana in 2010 and again after the ballot measure that legalized marijuana in 2016.

Using statewide surveys by the Public Policy Institute of California, we can compare attitudes toward immigrants before and after these events.

In September 2010, just before California decriminalized marijuana, 48 percent of Republicans who supported legalization said immigrants should be given a chance to keep their jobs and apply for legal status. By March 2012, that proportion rose to 64 percent, an increase of 16.2 percentage points. In contrast, pro-legalization Democrats held relatively steady: 82.5 percent in 2010 and 80.5 percent in 2012.

California voters approved Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, in November 2016. In May 2016, just 38 percent of Republicans supporting legalization opposed Donald Trump’s wall along the entire border with Mexico. By September, opposition to the border wall rose to 50.2 percent in the same subset of Republicans, an increase of 11.8 percentage points. Opposition to the wall among pro-legalization Democrats remained steady at about 90 percent.

In both sets of surveys, we see Republican attitudes toward immigrants becoming more liberal as the criminality of marijuana was reduced and eliminated.

Figure: Joe R. Tafoya
Figure: Joe R. Tafoya

Softening attitudes toward marijuana and a sense that historical fears about the “loco weed” were racist propaganda may be leading some Americans to be more skeptical of other negative claims about Mexican and other immigrants. Our findings suggest that attitudes toward immigrants will continue to become more supportive and positive as more states shift toward legal medical marijuana, decriminalization and finally to legal recreational use. The Biden administration’s latest action may further nudge attitudes about both marijuana and immigrants.

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Joe R. Tafoya is an assistant professor of political science at DePaul University, Chicago.

Melissa R. Michelson is dean of arts and sciences and a professor of political science at Menlo College.