Why Women Oppose Marijuana Legalization More Than Men

Opposition to marijuana may reflect disapproval of promiscuity.

Posted Mar 02, 2019

Although women tend to be more politically liberal than men on many issues, they are more conservative on some, and are more likely to oppose legalizing marijuana. A recent study examined this and found that people who have ever used marijuana are more likely to support legalization, and these people are more likely to be men than women (Elder & Greene, 2018). Other research suggests that attitudes towards drugs are influenced by reproductive strategies, so that those who prefer committed long-term relationships are more likely to have an unfavourable view of drug use, because of the latter’s association with promiscuity. This might help explain gender differences in attitudes to legalizing marijuana.

Although both men and women are represented across the whole political spectrum, research finds that, on average, women tend to hold moderately more politically liberal views than men on such issues as support for government spending on social welfare and environmental regulation, gun control, and equal rights for women, gays and lesbians, and tend to be less supportive of capital punishment, defense spending, and aggressive military action. However, there are certain other issues on which women tend to be more conservative, e.g., they tend to be more disapproving “of behaviour that violates conventional moral norms,” such as pornography, divorce, extramarital relationships, casual sex, and drug use (Elder & Greene, 2018). (Obviously, there are plenty of individual exceptions, but these are the general trends.) Additionally, women are more likely to be religious than men, which in the American political context has led to what is called the “partisan paradox.” That is, even though women are more likely to be liberal and Democratic rather than conservative and Republican than men, and liberals and Democrats are generally less religious than conservatives and Republicans, women are more likely to be religiously committed than men. This is somewhat puzzling because traditional religion is associated with more conservative views on issues that are perceived to have a moral dimension, such as pornography and drug use.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Using data from a 2013 Pew survey, which found that 57% of men and 48% of women supported legalization, Elder and Greene attempted to determine why women tend to be more opposed to legalizing marijuana than men by considering such factors as age, parenthood, political party affiliation, income, education, race, religious commitment (specifically, church attendance and whether one identified as a born-again Christian), and whether one had ever used marijuana, all of which were covered by the survey. They aimed to test several possible explanations. Specifically, they tested whether people who are parents, especially mothers, are more likely to oppose legalization, perhaps because they are worried about potential harms to children. Additionally, they wanted to test whether the gender difference in attitudes could be explained by differences between men and women in other factors such as religious commitment, political party affiliation, and personal marijuana use.  

The authors used a series of analyses to test which factors had the most influence on support for legalizing marijuana. Specifically, the first analysis considered only gender, the second also considered several demographic variables such as political party affiliation, age, income, education, race, parenthood, and so on, the third also considered religious commitment, while the fourth and final also considered whether one had ever used marijuana. Gender was significant in the first three analyses, indicating that women opposed legalization more than men even when considering political party affiliation, parenthood, age, race, and religious commitment. However, when personal use was included in the analysis, gender was no longer significant, suggesting that this plays an important role in explaining the gender difference. Parenthood was not significant in any analysis, indicating that being a parent made no difference to one’s attitude to legalization. Political party affiliation, age, and church attendance were significant in all analyses in which they were included, indicating that Democrats and younger people tend to be more supportive of legalization, while those who attend church more often tend to be more opposed. Interestingly, education became significant in the final analysis, indicating that those who are more educated tend to be more supportive of legalization. On the other hand, while race was significant in analyses two and three, indicating that whites were more supportive of legalization than non-whites, this became non-significant when personal use was controlled for. Personal use had the strongest influence of all the variables considered, indicating that those who had ever used were more likely to support legalization than those who had never used marijuana, even when considering all the other factors.

The authors performed an additional analysis to identify what factors predict who is likely to have ever used marijuana. They found that users were more likely to be male, younger, unmarried, higher income, and less likely to attend church. On the other hand, such factors as political party affiliation, education, race, employed status, and parenthood were not statistically significant.

Based on their findings, the authors concluded that factors like religious commitment and political party affiliation can partially but not wholly explain the gender difference in attitudes to marijuana legalization, and that the major contributor was whether one had ever used it oneself. Since men are more likely to have used it, they are more likely to support legalization. Why men are more likely to be users is not certain, but the authors noted that men are consistently more likely than women to engage in a range of risky activities, such as drug use. However, risk-taking is less clearly applicable to other issues on which women tend to be more conservative than men, such as access to pornography, casual sex, adultery, and divorce. The authors characterise these issues as having a “moral” dimension, which tends to be of more concern to women than men. Yet, things like drug use, pornography, etc., are “victimless crimes” so it is unclear why they should be considered moral problems as such. Furthermore, there are many potentially harmful activities, such as risky sports and even riskier occupations, that are not considered moral issues (Kurzban, Dukes, & Weeden, 2010), and women generally do not condemn people for doing them.

There is another intriguing possibility that the Pew survey did not examine, that might help account for the gender difference in attitudes. There is a theory that attempts to explain why some people think that other should be punished for engaging in behaviour that does not harm others, such as drug use, that considers reproductive strategies. That is, individuals differ in how strongly they prefer to commit to long-term monogamous relationships as opposed to having sexually permissive attitudes. According to this theory, people who pursue a reproductive strategy based on exclusive relationship commitment feel threatened by behaviours that might promote sexual promiscuity. This is because, if promiscuity becomes prevalent in society, it would become more difficult to find partners who are committed to exclusivity and there would be more risk that their existing partners might be tempted to stray. Hence, people following monogamous strategies want to impose social costs on those who would undermine traditional social mores of fidelity. On the other hand, promiscuous strategists have an interest in facilitating promiscuity by making it more socially acceptable. Many people regard recreational drugs as facilitating sexual promiscuity through lowering people’s inhibitions. Indeed, research has found that people who engage in risky sexual behaviour are more likely to smoke, drink alcohol more heavily, and use drugs (Zuckerman & Kuhlman, 2000). A couple of previous studies (Kurzban et al., 2010; Quintelier, Ishii, Weeden, Kurzban, & Braeckman, 2013) found that individual differences in attitudes to drug use are associated with one’s reproductive strategies. Specifically, these studies found that participants’ sociosexuality, i.e. their personal willingness to engage in uncommitted (casual, non-romantic) sexual behaviour, was related to their attitudes to the morality and legality of recreational drugs, i.e. individuals who had more sexually unrestricted attitudes had more permissive attitudes toward drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, and ecstasy, while those who were averse to sexual relations outside a committed relationship were also more disapproving of drugs. Furthermore, this association held even when controlling for how politically liberal or conservative the person was, overall and on a number of specific non-sexual issues (e.g. immigration, higher taxes for the wealthy, gun control, etc.), as well as their religious/spiritual commitment. In fact, when controlling for sociosexuality, overall political ideology and attitudes to non-sexual political issues were no longer significant predictors of attitudes toward drugs. Interestingly, sociosexuality was somewhat more strongly related to permissive attitudes to drugs than permissive attitudes to sexually related political issues (e.g. internet pornography, sex education in schools, gay marriage, etc.). One of these studies included both an internet sample and a sample of American college students (Kurzban et al., 2010), while the other compared samples from Belgium, the Netherlands, and Japan (Quintelier et al., 2013), so the findings applied to a range of cultures. (I discuss these studies in more detail in a previous post.)

Previous research has found that, on the whole, men tend to be higher in sociosexuality than women, i.e. they are generally more interested in casual sex, desire more partners, require less commitment before having sex, and have fewer restrictions on sexual behaviour than women (Hallam, De Backer, Fisher, & Walrave, 2018). As usual, this should be qualified with an acknowledgment that individual differences matter, i.e. some women enjoy unrestricted sexual relations and some men are strictly monogamous, yet, on the whole, these tend to be the exceptions to the general rule. Based on this, it might be inferred that men are more likely to have ever tried marijuana and are more likely to support legalization than women because they are more sociosexually unrestricted. This does not mean that they consciously think about things in this way, but that they have behavioural tendencies that align with their reproductive strategies. Similarly, this might help explain why women are more in favour of restricting access to pornography than men, i.e. on the whole, women are less likely to view pornography than men, and may see it as encouraging sexual promiscuity, which is at odds with their preferred reproductive strategies. Similarly, it has been proposed that religious attendance helps support monogamous reproductive strategies. Specifically, one study found that moral views about sexual behaviour are more strongly linked to religious attendance than other moral issues, and that sexual behaviour was a stronger predictor of religious attendance than age or gender (Weeden, Cohen, & Kenrick, 2008). This might help explain why women are more likely than men to see drug use and pornography as morally relevant, and why, as noted by Elder and Greene (2018), traditional religions tend to frown on marijuana use, even though the Bible does not mention the subject.

Elder and Greene close their paper by suggesting that with time, marijuana may come to be seen as more mainstream and recreational, rather than immoral, deviant, and harmful, and that this might cause the gender gap in attitudes to legalization to shrink, particularly if it is framed as less of a moral issue. However, the Pew survey shows that men have historically been more in favour of legalization for several decades, and that the gender gap has actually grown over this time.

Pew survey
(Reproduction of this image falls under fair use.)
Source: Pew survey

Furthermore, if the reproductive strategies account is correct, then framing the issue as a moral one does not really turn on whether it is actually harmful or not, because there are plenty of activities that people engage in that are potentially harmful that are not considered moral issues. In fact, it may be that arguments about it being harmful and deviant are really just a smokescreen (no pun intended) for the real reasons for condemning it. Historically, there has been incredible hysteria about “soft” drugs, including wildly exaggerated claims about the dangers of mind-altering drugs, such as LSD that actually has a very low harm potential (Nutt, King, & Phillips, 2010). This is not to say that marijuana is completely harmless, only that the condemnation of it is out of proportion to its harm potential, especially compared to tobacco and alcohol. Similarly, a case could be made that pornography has become more mainstream, and that claims about its harmfulness to society have been shown to be overstated. In fact, there is some evidence that allowing access to pornography may benefit society (Diamond, Jozifkova, & Weiss, 2011). Yet despite this, women still tend to have more conservative attitudes on the subject than men. And people of both sexes still continue campaigning to ban or restrict it, based on flimsy "evidence" of its harmfulness, even going so far as to call it “the new drug” (Hamblin, 2016). Hence, mainstreaming of marijuana use may not be enough to close the gender gap in attitudes to legalization, considering that there seem to be deeper reasons that provoke disapproval of it.

© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 


Diamond, M., Jozifkova, E., & Weiss, P. (2011). Pornography and Sex Crimes in the Czech Republic. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40(5), 1037–1043. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-010-9696-y

Elder, L., & Greene, S. (2018). Gender and the Politics of Marijuana. Social Science Quarterly. https://doi.org/10.1111/ssqu.12558

Hallam, L., De Backer, C. J. S., Fisher, M. L., & Walrave, M. (2018). Are Sex Differences in Mating Strategies Overrated? Sociosexual Orientation as a Dominant Predictor in Online Dating Strategies. Evolutionary Psychological Science, 4(4), 456–465. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40806-018-0150-z

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