The Public Lightens Up About Weed
By JULIET LAPIDOSJULY 26, 2014
When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, he admitted that he had “experimented with marijuana,” but said he “didn’t like it,” “didn’t inhale it” and “never tried it again.” Whatever the accuracy of that statement, he was accused of pandering to the marijuana-wary voting public.
Flash forward to the early stages of the 2008 presidential campaign. At an event in Iowa, then-candidate Barack Obama disclosed that he had not only smoked marijuana as a young man, but inhaled it, too. “That was the point,” he said. The public responded with a shrug.
Between the two campaigns, Americans had loosened up considerably. By the time Mr. Obama was wooing voters in Iowa, Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” slogan was a relic of a fustier era, and “Weeds,” a comedy about a widowed mother who sells marijuana to support her family, was on TV. Few people remembered Judge Douglas Ginsburg, who in 1987 had to withdraw from consideration as a Supreme Court justice after admitting that he had used marijuana while a professor at Harvard Law School.
Seventy-eight percent of Americans thought marijuana should be illegal in 1991. That figure fell to 57 percent in 2008, according to the Pew Research Center. In 2013, for the first time in over four decades of polling on the issue, prohibition was a minority position. Fifty-two percent said they favored legalizing marijuana use; 45 percent were opposed.
It seems likely that the legalization majority will continue to grow. Pew’s latest survey says 54 percent of Americans now support legalization. That includes 52 percent of baby boomers (who opposed legalization in the 1980s) and 69 percent of millennials. As with same-sex marriage, young people do not seem to understand what all the fuss is about. On these two social issues, they’re libertarians.
So what happened? How did we get from “just say no” to “no big deal,” from “I didn’t inhale” to “that was the point”? Americans are not, on the whole, more liberal politically than they used to be — Gallup polling on ideological self-identification has been quite consistent for 20 years. They simply appear to have come around to the view that the war on marijuana is more harmful than marijuana itself.
Nearly three-quarters of Americans, 72 percent, say government efforts to enforce marijuana laws cost more than they are worth. Even Republicans, who tend to be more skeptical of legalization, overwhelmingly hold that opinion: 67 percent. And a shrinking share of the population believes marijuana is a “gateway” substance that leads to harder drugs (38 percent in 2013 versus 60 percent in 1977), or that marijuana use is “morally wrong” (32 percent in 2013, down 18 points since 2006).
Starting with California in the mid-1990s, Americans have seen state after state legalize the drug for medical use — and two states legalize it for general use — without enduring fire and brimstone. They’ve heard about ordinary people arrested on possession charges who cannot find jobs because of their criminal record. And they’ve read statistics showing a persistent racial bias in enforcement: Black citizens are nearly four times as likely as white people to be arrested for possession.
Perhaps Americans have also been swayed by the array of public figures who have spoken out against prohibition. Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, told The Times in 2012 that “we should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol.” “I’ve never used marijuana and I don’t intend to,” he added, “but it’s just one of those things that I think: This war on drugs just hasn’t succeeded.” Bob Barr, a former congressman, and Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, signed a letter to Congress in 2009 arguing that each state should have the right “to dictate its own marijuana policy.” Giving states this authority, they said, “would free federal law enforcement resources for the more urgent tasks of thwarting, apprehending and prosecuting international terrorists or murderers.”
But Americans are not deriving their opinions on marijuana just from the media. Forty-eight percent said they had tried marijuana in 2013, according to Pew, up from 38 percent a decade earlier. One in 10 said they had used the drug in the last year. Someone who’s tried marijuana is unlikely to succumb to “Reefer Madness"-style fear-mongering, or to less hysterical but equally invalid ideas about the medical risks of occasional use. Roughly seven in 10 Americans believe alcohol is more detrimental to a person’s health, which is what the scientific establishment believes.
This isn’t the first time the nation seemed to be heading toward more liberal marijuana laws. In 1972 the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse unanimously recommended decriminalization; in 1977 President Jimmy Carter asked Congress to accept that advice. But there was a backlash movement, led in part by suburban parents worried that weed was turning their children into layabouts.
Americans still associate smoking marijuana with apathy. There’s a whole subgenre of Hollywood comedies devoted to stoned antics, like “Pineapple Express” or the “Harold and Kumar” series, which keep alive the impression that weed is the drug of choice of young people who’d rather sit on the couch eating snacks than grow up and get a job. Only a minority of Americans now think it’s the government’s responsibility to discourage that behavior through the criminal justice system. A majority believe that the war on marijuana has failed and that it’s time to end it.
On Monday at 4:20 p.m. Eastern Time, Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor, will be taking questions about marijuana legalization at facebook.com/nytimes.