For Release Sunday, April 14, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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