It’s often hard to envision massive, super fast changes in social attitudes. But they do happen.
Who could have guessed in, say, 1999, same-sex marriage would just a few years later become legal in so many states, recognized by the federal government, and seen as no big deal by many conservatives?
And who could have guessed that just a few years after that happened, more people would favor legal cannabis than favor same-sex marriage?
On Monday, Gallup released a poll showing a record 66% of Americans think cannabis should be legal—a couple of percentage points more than the number of people who support gay marriage.
- Ten years ago, only 40% of voters supported legalization.
- It only rose above 50% in 2011.
- Strikingly, even Republicans now favor legal cannabis, by a slim majority of 51%.
While such shifts appear to happen quickly (like the swift decreases in tobacco use and drunk-driving rates), that’s not really the case. They happen very, very slowly, and then all at once. Activists founded the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws 48 years ago, when only about 12% of Americans favored legalization. Seeing change as a sudden phenomenon ignores decades of work.
And much more work remains. Adult use of cannabis remains illegal in 41 states.
In 2017, police arrested about 660,000 people on suspicion of cannabis-related crimes, according to FBI statistics.
Record-high, supermajority support can only speed the change of such laws. The same thing happened with gay marriage, which, like cannabis, is still far from universally accepted, especially in red states.
One likely reason for the sudden upsurge in acceptance of legal pot: Four states voted to fully legalize adult use in 2016. One in five Americans live in those states. Even if they’re not cannabis consumers themselves, they look around and see their states look pretty much the same as they did before legalization, and they realize there’s no good reason for pot to remain illegal.
Political rhetoric also has a big effect. Gallup notes support for legal pot doubled by the end of the 1970s, but it leveled off through the 1980s and 1990s, thanks in part to Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign. The Clinton Administration cut the rhetoric but perpetuated mass incarceration, and legalization’s support started rising again. More and more politicians started actively pursuing reform.
By 2001, a third of Americans favored legalization, and support steadily grew in the years following, before spiking in the past few years.
These days, no one knows what’s next. There is the danger the Trump administration might take on legal weed with a massive propaganda campaign, and with more enforcement. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also has attitudes straight out of the Reefer Madness era.
By contrast, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher promises a post-midterm election fix on medical marijuana and states’ rights to legalization. A Republican majority of voters in favor of legalization may might give the administration pause.
In the past, Trump has supported decriminalizing all drugs, but if he thinks he can use it as a wedge issue, he will.
Despite the state of politics at the moment, Gallup still states: “Over the past several years, Gallup has found that Americans have become more liberal on a variety of social issues.”
Some say legalization is “five years away.” Others respond: “it’s always been five years away.”
Marijuana prohibition in 30 states forced the federal government to jump on board in the last century.
It may take cannabis legalization in 30 states to convince Congress to abandon prohibition this century.