Which states are most likely next in line to legalize marijuana for recreational use? It’s no small question for current users, who have a personal stake in the answer, or growers, with a financial stake. The question is typically addressed through political polling and temperature-taking among state legislatures.

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But there may be a different approach, and while it might not be a better approach, anything that could offer a fresh perspective on the question could be useful. A state’s collective personality just might be a better predictor of when it legalizes cannabis. Yes, you read that right.

The "Big Five" Personality Traits

For years, psychologists and market researchers (who typically know just enough psychology to be dangerous) have characterized people based on traits known as the “Big Five” personality dimensions. These are typically represented by their initials: Extraversion (E), Agreeableness (A), Conscientiousness (C), Neuroticism (N), and Openness (O).

A lot of studies have been conducted attempting to explain different human behaviors in terms of their correlation with one or more of these traits. Not surprisingly, marijuana use is one of those behaviors. Several studies have found that cannabis users are more likely than non-users to exhibit Openness (i.e., the tendency to be imaginative, intellectually curious, and seek out new experiences).

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When you think about it, this isn’t too surprising. In addition, a recent study by a branch of the National Institute of Health found that users tend to be less Conscientious (i.e., the tendency to be well-organized, self-disciplined, and deliberate)[i]. This may or may not be surprising as well. (See Figure 1.) [caption id="attachment_16905" align="aligncenter" width="1166"]Cannabis users more likely to show openness and less likely to show conscientiousness Figure 1[/caption] Psychologists have now done so many studies collecting people’s scores on the Big Five that there is now enough data to rank all 50 states (plus D.C.) on each of them.

That’s right – you can now learn whether your state is more open than most, or where it ranks on the agreeableness scale, or differentiate it on any of the other three traits, based on the average scores of those in your state who’ve participated in at least one study[ii].

And of the twelve states that have already legalized recreational marijuana, eight rank in the top ten in terms of Openness. (See Figure 2. The scores are expressed as points above or below the national average, with the large majority of scores across the 51 states falling between -2 and +2, although there are outliers. For example, Washington D.C. scores a whopping 3.26 on Openness.)

8 of the current 12 legal states are in the top ten for openness Figure 2
Given all the variables that probably play into the timing of legalization across states, the fact that any one of them shows this strong a statistical relationship makes a pretty compelling case for the importance of that variable.

And so Openness not only helps predict cannabis use at the individual level, it just might predict how soon a state is ready to legalize. Presumably, the more people in a given state who have that open attitude, the less political risk the state legislature associates with legalization.

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So it seems we might be on to something here with this personality-based approach. Yet we don’t have a good explanation for why Alaska, Maine, Michigan, and Illinois, with their low scores on Openness, are on this list.

Well, we’ve already noted that the NIH study also found cannabis use to be negatively related to Conscientiousness at the individual level, and in fact when we look at it on a state level we see that Alaska and Maine rank as numbers 51 and 50, respectively, on Conscientiousness – dead last and second from last. (See Figure 3.) This seems to make a reasonably persuasive case for the role of low Conscientiousness, even though we still haven’t explained Michigan and Illinois.

Alaska, Maine, Michigan, Illinois Figure 3
But rather than get caught up in trying to explain every nuance of the relationship between a state’s collective personality and the timing of legalization, let’s see if we can put we know already into practice.

Predicting the Next States to Legalize

For the sake of speculation, we created a scoring system that awarded “chips” to each non-legal state based on a few factors. A state was awarded 1 chip for being above average on Openness, and an extra chip if they were more than half a point above average.

Likewise, states were awarded 1 chip for being below average on Conscientiousness, and an extra chip if they were more than half a point below. Finally, a state was awarded one last chip if they’ve already legalized marijuana for medical use, on the assumption that this could serve as a foot in the door making legalization for recreational use more likely.

Figure 4 shows the results. If a state earned 4 or 5 chips, we projected legalization in 2020. Two or 3 chips marked a state as a likely 2021 legalizer. One or zero and the state was relegated to 2022. (These years were admittedly chosen arbitrarily, just as a starting point for consideration, although in today’s climate it’s hard to imagine even the die-hards holding out for longer than three years.)

States most likely to legalize marijuana. Figure 4
The 5-chippers might not be surprising; most people, if asked to predict, might have picked Connecticut, Maryland, New Hampshire, and New York-based on intuition alone.

But how many people would have predicted Arkansas as a 4-chip prospect and a likely near-term legalizer? Besides being above average on Openness and below average on Conscientiousness, the state has already legalized marijuana for medical use. What happens in Arkansas could be the first test of this model – which is admittedly more pseudo-scientific than scientific, but just might contain a germ of truth.


[i] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3036782/ [ii] Rentfrow, Peter J. et al, “A Theory of the Emergence, Persistence, and Expression of Geographic Variation in Psychological Characteristics,” Association for Psychological Science, September 2008