SAYit Blog
Marijuana versus synthetic cannabis

In light of the recent debate about synthetic cannabis, I thought it'd be interesting to see what New Zealanders thought about the legal status.  Synthetic cannabis has been banned from sale in most locations since we did this poll at the beginning of July 2013, but I still think the comparison between attitudes towards marijuana and synthetic cannabis are worth exploring.

You may recall an earlier SAYit blog on legalising marijuana.  Check out http://sayit.co.nz/blog/legalise-or-decriminalise if you missed it or you want to see what people have said on the issue since.  That earlier blog commented on the results of a SAYit survey of n=1000 New Zealanders conducted in August 2011, and showed that at that time:

  • 14% wanted marijuana fully legalised
  • 45% wanted it decriminalised, so anyone caught using it would get fined but would not get a criminal record
  • 38% believed that it should remain illegal and anyone caught using it should get a criminal record.
  • 3% were unsure.

​We re-asked this question in July 2013 (again with a survey of n=1000 New Zealanders), which showed a small change in attitudes. 

  • 17% now want marijuana fully legalised 
  • 46% now want it decriminalised
  • 35% believe that it should remain illegal.
  • 2% are now unsure.

​The proportion favouring a softening in the laws is therefore up from 59% to 63%.

Although that's interesting enough, the true value of re-asking the question is in comparing the results for that question with those of an equivalent question on synthetic cannabis. We asked the same representative sample of n=1000 New Zealanders:

  • "Synthetic cannabis is an artificial alternative to cannabis which is currently legal. Which of the following is closest to your view on what its legal status should be?"

I need to point out of course that synthetic cannabis was legal when we started the poll.  It has now been banned from sale in dairies, petrol stations and liquor stores, with substantial restrictions on its sale elsewhere (information available from the Ministry of Health here).

The question on synthetic cannabis used a scale modelled on that used for marijuana, and showed that:

  • 12% thought that synthetic cannabis should stay legal
  • 38% believed that it should be decriminalised, so anyone caught using it would get fined but would not get a criminal record 
  • 47% believed that it should become illegal and anyone caught using it should get a criminal record. 

Obviously the term 'decriminalised' isn't strictly correct for a substance that was not illegal at the time, but hopefully people understood that we were meaning that possession would be banned but punishable only with a fine.

So let's go through that head to head:

  • SHOULD BE LEGAL: 14% for marijuana, 12% for synthetic cannabis
  • DECRIMINALISE: 46% for marijuana, 38% for synthetic cannabis
  • SHOULD BE ILLEGAL: 35% of marijuana, 47% for synthetic cannabis 

It's fair to say that we're generally more likely to be concerned about synthetic cannabis than about marijuana.

  • 31% of those who think that marijuana should be decriminalised nonetheless think that synthetic cannabis should be illegal.
  • 63% of those who think that marijuana should be legalised think that synthetic cannabis should either be decriminalised (40%) or banned entirely (23%).
  • 29% of all New Zealanders think that BOTH marijuana AND synthetic cannabis should be banned entirely
  • 6% want BOTH marijuana AND synthetic cannabis to be completely legal.

Thinking about the difference between these views, I wonder how much personal experiences of the two drugs has affected attitudes.  45% of New Zealanders admit to smoking marijuana at some stage in their lives, compared with only 9% who have tried synthetic cannabis, and synthetic cannabis use is clearly skewed towards young people.

  • Amongst under 30s, 49% have tried marijuana and 26% have tried synthetic cannabis.
  • Amongst 30-44 year olds, it's 55% for marijuana and 10% for synthetic cannabis.
  • Amongst 45-59 year olds, 51% say they've tried marijuana and only 3% have tried synthetic cannabis
  • Amongst over 60 year olds, 22% admit to smoking marijuana and 1% have tried synthetic cannabis.

Of those who have tried marijuana:

  • 19% think marijuana should be completely illegal, 55% want it decriminalised and 25% want it legalised.
  • 38% think synthetic cannabis should be completely illegal, 44% want it 'decriminalised' and 15% legalised. 

Of the small sample who admit to trying synthetic cannabis:

  • 4% think marijuana should be completely illegal, 44% want it decriminalised and 51% want it legalised.
  • 27% think synthetic cannabis should be completely illegal, 46% want it 'decriminalised' and 24% legalised. 

In other words, almost three quarters (73%) of those who admit to trying synthetic cannabis nonetheless think that there should at least be fines for using it.

Here's an important point though - 94% of those who admitted to trying synthetic cannabis also said that they had tried marijuana.  Does that suggest that the market for synthetic cannabis exists only because marijuana is illegal, and / or that synthetic cannabis users think marijuana is much less dangerous?

Lastly, because this comes up from time to time as a political issue, let's look at attitudes by party vote:

  • 55% of National voters, 71% of Labour voters and 88% of Green voters favour either decriminalisation or legalisation of marijuana.
  • 87% of National voters, 84% of Labour voters and 84% of Green voters think that synthetic cannabis should either be completely illegal or 'decriminalised' (i.e. possession punishable with a fine).
  • 43% of National voters, 45% of Labour voters and 60% of Green voters admit to trying marijuana, while 5% of National voters, 11% of Labour voters and 23% of Green voters say they have tried synthetic cannabis.

Feel free to comment on these findings below.  The main question coming out of this for me is:

  • Why exactly do we seem so much more concerned about synthetic cannabis than marijuana?  Is it just the fact that we're less likely to have experienced it, or is there something else going on?

You might also like to have your say on another big issue: Which causes more social harm, alcohol or marijuana?  Try out our new Quick Question Poll at:  http://sayit.co.nz/questions/alcohol-marijuana