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Poll Breaks for Legalized Marijuana: What Happens Now?

Neal Peirce / Apr 12 2013

For Release Sunday, April 14, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceFor the first time, national polling shows a majority of Americans – 52 percent of us – favor legalizing marijuana use in the United States. Opposition has dropped to 45 percent.

The new figures, in a scientifically conducted survey by the Pew Research Center, indicate a dramatic reversal of American public opinion. Support for legalizing marijuana has jumped 11 points just since 2010.

Historically the change is even more dramatic. The first national survey on legalizing marijuana – by the Gallup Poll in 1948– showed just 12 percent of Americans then in favor, with 84 percent opposed.

So what happens now? Are we about to see a rush of marijuana legalization laws as intense as states’ efforts to legalize gay marriages? Did last fall’s Colorado and Washington votes, making marijuana use fully legal within their borders, and not just for medicinal uses, mark a true watershed?

One would like to think so. With full reform, millions of Americans could see their personal preference for marijuana, whether for pain relief or just plain fun, move out of the shadows of illegality. Some 800,000 yearly arrests for marijuana possession could be averted. We might start to pare our prison populations by hundreds of thousands, redeeming lives, reuniting families, saving vast sums of public treasure. Growing marijuana legally would cut deeply into the United States’ massive, blood-soaked drug (and gun) trade with Mexico.

Sadly, we may not be so fortunate. Today’s swing toward marijuana legalization may move much more slowly than the rush to recognition and legality of same-sex marriages?

Why such a cautious forecast?

Well, this writer was once burned, seeing reform just around the bend. In a 1977 column I noted nine states had softened their marijuana possession laws from criminal offense to mere civil infraction. And that President Jimmy Carter was asking Congress to reduce the federal penalty for an ounce of marijuana from a year in jail to a civil fine, probably $100.

Polls indicated some trends toward acceptance – and recognition of prohibition’s futility. I could quote C.O. Sessums Jr., president of the Mississippi Sheriffs Association: “If we were to round up every kid in Sunflower County who smokes marijuana, we wouldn’t have enough left to hold Sunday School.”

So what happened to the 1970s whiff of marijuana reform? Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Foundation gave me an answer: Back then marijuana was relatively new in American culture – mostly practiced by a younger generation. Today’s world is different: Half of young peoples’ own parents have tried marijuana. Which makes a huge difference – there’s even a joke that if the parents’ door is closed and vapors of the weed are discernable, better stay clear, there’s love making under way.

So the shift relates to generations, as the new Pew findings underscore, noting the contrasting results by age groups – from respondents of the “Silent Generation” (Americans born before the end of World War II), post-World War II Baby Boomers (1946 to 1964), Generation Xers (1965 to 1980), and finally “Millennials” (born since 1980). Here’s how many now favor legalizing marijuana:

     Silent Generation: 32 percent
     Baby Boomers: 50 percent
     Generation X: 54 percent
     Millennials: 65 percent

There’s no doubt where the future lies. Indeed, 60 percent of all respondents said the federal government shouldn’t even try to enforce national law prohibiting marijuana use in the states where voters have approved its use.

So if demographics are driving us toward marijuana acceptance, isn’t legalization poised to spread rapidly, state to state? If so, why aren’t significant laws crowding legislative calendars?

Perhaps it’s fear that the Obama administration might suddenly decide to get tough on Colorado and Washington, starting to arrest marijuana providers and users in those states. Attorney General Eric Holder has been promising, but not delivering, an administration position on the two states’ rather bold defiance of existing federal law.

There are real barriers. Absurdly, the U.S. government still classifies marijuana as a “Schedule I” controlled substance – meaning it allegedly has no medical use, strong potential for addiction and is a danger to persons using it. (Even cocaine enjoys “Schedule II” classification, suggesting some useful qualities.)

So the best Holder may be able to do is declare marijuana prosecution a low priority. That would leave some U.S. attorneys license to go after cases of their own volition.

Eventually the legal logjam has to break, as younger generations gain political clout and today’s oldsters pass on. States will almost assuredly be the leaders, first among them likely those, like Colorado and Washington, that first opened the door to medical marijuana – California, Oregon, Alaska, Maine, Nevada, Hawaii and Massachusetts.

But there could be surprise shifts, even in conservative states. Pew found rising support scores in all regions. A website, thedailychronic.net, is keeping track. Stay tuned.


Neal Peirce’s e-mail is npeirce@citistates.com.

For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp., WPPermissions@parsintl.com, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375, wpwgsales@washpost.com.

8 Comments

  1. Posted April 12, 2013 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    Legalization makes perfect sense. Eric Holder needs to get stoned and listen to some Grateful Dead. The pain, both to the nation and to individuals, of our illogical drug prohibition laws, is too much for either the nation or the individual to bear.

  2. Marc Brenman
    Posted April 12, 2013 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

    By reducing incarceration of African-Americans and other low income people, legalization of marijuana would also reduce poverty. A correlate to legalization should be taxation. Already, the biggest cash crop in several states like California, Oregon, and Washington is allegedly marijuana. If it were legalized and taxed, many governmental budgetary shortfalls would be done away with. Perhaps the legalization statutes could say that the tax money will be devoted to K-12 education.

    A side issue is environmental degradation. Large commercial marijuana growers are destroying the natural land environment they use, like any unregulated user. So there will need to be regulation about pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and water runoff. We live in a complicated world.

  3. Sheila Martin
    Posted April 12, 2013 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

    If the classification is the barrier, what does it take to change it to a Class II drug?

  4. Phil Hammerslough
    Posted April 13, 2013 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    Musings from a pre-Baby Boomer who lives in a neighborhood that is 90+% student populated, I can only hope these youths can get involved enough to pressure our local and state government to legalize marijuana.

    Vermont has the highest rate of binge drinking in the country. The stupidity, vandalism and violence that results in their drunken behavior is appalling. Far better that they should indulge in pot which elicits no violence, far less vandalism, noise and obnoxious antics. Odd how this generation never says, “Make love not war.”

    Legalizing marijuana would give alcohol a good run for its money. Speaking of which taxing cannibis would certainly help with local, state, and Federal revenues. And this doesn’t even begin to address industrial and medical uses for this plant.

  5. Posted April 13, 2013 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Writing as a retired detective and currently an advocate/lobbyist for law enforcement in the US Congress, allow me to clear up some mis-information.

    Taxing MJ would not wipe out budget deficits. We consume about 7 billion doses of MJ per year (1 gram = 1 dose). Taxed at a dollar per dose (a very robust tax) = only 7 Billion dollars. My colleagues blow up 13B chasing the green plant for a total turn around of 20 B. It would help many a school budget but not end deficits.

    In Congress re-schedule MJ to its proper place (probably Schedule 3) would only address medical use. The barrier is the establishment (cops & politicians of both parties). Thus what we do in Congress is have a bill HR 1523 which would employ the 10th Amendment (states’ rights) for MJ.
    THAT would solve most issues of MJ prohibition. NOTE: Alcohol, tobacco, gambling and carrying firearms are other examples of states’ rights issues.

    Phil’s comments are spot on.

    My interest is primarily how my profession misses many a pedophile and other public safety threats, as we spend -literally – millions of hours chasing a green plant.

  6. David B Larsen
    Posted April 14, 2013 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    Agree with most of the comments so far. One addition to the revenue side would be the taxes on income that would be generated from entrepreneurs that produce and sell mj, millions of dollars that are currently revolving around in the black market that we would be brought out of the shadows. Either way, any additional revenue emerging for our cash-strapped municipalities would be a boon, regardless of how much. It all starts with the Feds re-classifying mj as a schedule 2 drug as the first step…the ridiculous fact that this hasn’t happened shows the true size of the establishment that is fighting (and profiting) off of the current set of rules.

  7. Posted April 14, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    With all due respect to Aaron’s solid views…making MJ a Schedule Two drug would only help medical users…..to obtain MJ via a Sch. Two, you would need to go to your doctor and obtain a prescription…similar to “medical” whiskey during that prohibition….a solid change only for med users…

    The feds need to put MJ in the same Title 27 area that alcohol and cigarettes are today…two very deadly products available w/o a prescription.

  8. John Stanga
    Posted April 15, 2013 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    I’m all for using logic in my arguments.

    There are several fallacies in the above related to the “Fallacy of Proof by Assertion.” (The notion that if you repeat a falsehood enough times that it will eventually become a truth.)

    First is the assertion that “addiction” is a disease. It is not. Addiction is a decision to act in accordance with your animal inclinations rather than your higher human faculties and potential. Even those who claim a physical addiction to cigarettes, alcohol or drugs are burdened by the fact that no one has died from giving up these things.

    Second is the argumentum ad populum—everyone’s doing it and so legalization is inevitable. Similar arguments were made on behalf of public policy in 1930s Germany and were no more logical then than they are now. This is not logic. Why is there an appeal to it?

    And third is the fallacious assertion that “We might start to pare our prison populations by hundreds of thousands, redeeming lives, reuniting families, saving vast sums of public treasure.” Those who engage in the risks of breaking the law now will not suddenly come to themselves and renounce risk simply because the goalposts have been moved a bit closer.

    The laziness and the stupidity of those who ingest poison for pleasure does not dissipate simply because poison is legalized. The laziness and stupidity will remain—and so the attitude that puts the self before others will eventually find another way to express itself.

    Those who refuse to think for themselves—who are too indolent or dim-witted to see that the assertion being made is naked and ugly—deserve the so-called society they get.