Marijuana legalization has spread rapidly across the country since Colorado and Washington passed ballot referendums in 2012 authorizing adult use. There are now 33 states that have legalized either medical or recreational use. However, the federal government still classifies marijuana as a drug with high potential for abuse and no medical usefulness.
The poll shows marijuana largely has avoided a perception hit following nearly 2,000 cases of vaping-related lung illnesses, including at least 37 deaths. The most recent numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that more than 80 percent of vaping products linked to lung problems contained THC — the psychoactive component of marijuana. Most of the vaping products tied to the outbreak were bought on the black market, although a handful of deaths have been tied to products purchased through state-legal marijuana dispensaries.
The poll was conducted in early October, at least a month after news broke of health issues associated with vaping.
“Right or wrong, people have decided that vaping could be very dangerous,” Blendon said. “At the same time, that’s not true for marijuana.”
Understanding that THC is part of marijuana and how that could be put in a product traditionally used for nicotine takes a longer time and takes a lot of messaging.
“If news stories said, ‘Oh, there was marijuana in it,‘ people would get it. But they’re using three letters,” Blendon said. “I think they just haven’t made the link.”
Only half of America knows what CBD is
The market for CBD products has exploded since hemp was legalized under the 2018 farm bill, with Americans using it to treat everything from back pain to cancer. But despite widespread use, many Americans don’t know what it is.
Nearly half of respondents indicated they weren’t familiar with CBD. Yet CBD is widely seen by the general public as a benign substance. Only 8 percent of total adults polled and 5 percent of those familiar with CBD said they think it is very harmful.
A majority of people familiar with CBD said they want little to no interference or regulation by the federal government. Only half of those who knew what CBD was thought the Food and Drug Administration should regulate the safety of products that contain it. The FDA is wrestling with how it should regulate the rapidly growing industry.
Of consumers familiar with CBD, 55 percent said they should be able to buy it over the counter if they think it‘s effective for them — whether or not a clinical trial has proven that it actually is. And more than 3 out of every 5 CBD users say they’d consider using their favorite products even if the FDA found that the product doesn’t actually help in the way it claims to.
“People do not think CBD is very harmful. Therefore, the salience of, ‘Yeah, I think the FDA should regulate it’ is not very high,” Blendon said. “If only 5 percent of people think a product is very harmful, they’re not talking to Congress. They’re not writing letters.”
If the FDA wants the chance to do anything beyond regulating CBD for product safety, it needs to hurry and release guidelines, or risk enormous pushback from the American public, he said.
Democrats and Republicans are divided on marijuana, but not CBD
While 67 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of independents support federal marijuana legalization, only 45 percent of Republicans are on board. That translates to 62 percent of Americans supporting federal legalization, a huge leap from the 44 percent of Americans who thought legalization was a good idea in 2009, according to Blendon.
But when it comes to CBD, there is no partisan divide. According to the Harvard poll, 13 percent of Republicans and Democrats indicated they use CBD products. In addition, 83 percent of Democrats and 73 percent of Republicans think it should be sold in drugstores like CVS or Walgreens.
The real CBD divide is generational: 21 percent of adults under 30 use it, versus 11 percent of adults over 65.