Marching Toward Critical Mass
Are Americans ready to legalize marijuana?
Published: April 17, 2013
Lest you think the above is some anomaly (and we’re pretty sure you don’t), the following is transcribed from another Nixon recording between the president and Haldeman, in the Oval Office, toward the end of May 1971:
Nixon: “Now, this is one thing I want. I want a goddamn strong statement on marijuana. Can I get that out of this sonofabitching, uh, [commission]?”
Nixon: “I mean one on marijuana that just tears the ass out of them. I see another thing in the news summary this morning about it. You know it’s a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish. What the christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob, what is the matter with them? I suppose it’s because most of them are psychiatrists, you know, there’s so many, all the greatest psychiatrists are Jewish. By god we are going to hit the marijuana thing, and I want to hit it right square in the puss, I want to find a way of putting more on that. …”
Haldeman: “Mm hmm, yep.”
Haldeman and Ehrlichman were each found guilty of orchestrating that infamous break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office complex; both men served 18 months in federal custody.
Despite a seeming respite during the remainder of the 1970s, the crusade picked up with alacrity after the inauguration of Ronald Reagan in 1981. Throughout the next seven administrations, the viewpoint of at least more than half those Americans polled felt pot was too dangerous to view any other way then as a public scourge, like crack or heroin.
But, that was then. (As a point of reference, “then” reaches as far back as 2011.)
What’s Turning the Tide?
THE PEW STUDY, which naturally has weed advocates buzzing, is groundbreaking in its unambiguous demonstration that a majority of Americans favor legalization. In a previous poll conducted by Gallup last November, the question of whether the federal government should take steps to enforce anti-marijuana laws in those states where marijuana use is legal, 64 percent of adults responded no; 34 percent said yes, the feds should trump state law. While an inference from the majority of respondents who said yes to states’ rights was that marijuana should be legal in all states, when the question was asked whether you think marijuana should be legal, less than half, or 48 percent, responded in the affirmative; 50 percent said pot should not be legal.
What’s happened between then and now?
While it’s not a simple answer, there seems to be a confluence of events that have led to a majority shift in opinion. By parsing Pew’s results, one of the biggest drivers of change becomes self-evident: There’s strength in numbers.
The percentage of support for legalizing pot is directly proportional to the generation of the respondent. For instance, members of what is called “The Silent Generation,” those born between 1925-1945, continue to be less supportive of marijuana legalization than younger adults, but even here the amount favoring legalization has nearly doubled — from 17 percent to 32 percent — since 2002.
Compare that with fully 65 percent of millennials — those adults born since 1980 who are now between the ages of 18 and 32 — who favor legalizing the use of marijuana, which is up from just 36 percent in 2008 and you’ll start to understand the game-changer.
“It’s an issue that has been framed in many different ways within recent years,” says John Strate, a political science professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. “But generational replacement is likely the biggest cause for the shift in public opinion. Those older Americans who have traditionally been against legalization are dying out and a younger, more liberal generation has filled the gap.”
Strate, who noted that political scientists would also examine the issue of legalization as a “moral politics” issue, said that the four decade-long war on drugs has also contributed to a shift in attitudes as more Americans have become aware of marijuana’s medicinal properties as being legitimate and not the bogus red herring as previous administrations claimed.
“Elected officials are often reluctant to deal with issues in this category (other examples would be abortion and assisted suicide),” Strate wrote in an email. “Because, whatever position they take are certain to alienate a certain proportion of the public. Most of these issues are capable of being framed in different ways so public opinion on some of them can be fluid.”
Yet there also has been a striking change in long-term attitudes among older generations, particularly baby boomers. Half of boomers now favor legalizing marijuana, among the highest percentages ever. In 1978, 47 percent of boomers favored legalizing marijuana, but support plummeted during the 1980s, reaching a low of 17 percent in 1990. Since 1994, however, the percentage of boomers favoring legalization has doubled, from 24 percent to 50 percent.
Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, and coming of age in the 1990s when there was widespread opposition to legalizing pot, has also expressed a dramatic increase in support for legalization — from just 28 percent in 1994 to 42 percent a decade later, and 54 percent currently, according to the Pew study.
Underscoring Strate’s notion of a moral issue being salient, part of the Pew study looked at whether respondents believed smoking pot to be a moral issue. Again, the numbers demonstrate a clear shift in attitude. Currently, 32 percent say that smoking marijuana is morally wrong, an 18-point decline since 2006, when 50 percent responded affirmatively to the question. Over this period, the percentage saying that smoking marijuana is not a moral issue has risen 15 points, from 35 percent in ’06 to 50 percent today.
As for that godforsaken War on Drugs, nearly three-quarters of Americans, 72 percent, say that federal efforts to enforce marijuana laws cost more than they are worth; and 60 percent say the federal government should not enforce federal laws prohibiting the use of marijuana in states where it is legal.
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