A Gallup poll last October reported that a “majority continues to support marijuana legalization in the United Sates.” The 2014 poll indicated that 51% of Americans support legalization while 47% oppose it. This represented some shrinkage in legalization support from the 2013 poll, which found 58% in favor, but is still evidence of a solid trend line consistent with 2011 and 2012 polls that each reported 50% in support of legalizing marijuana. The most revealing finding, though, is that opposition to legalization is down from 64% in 2004.
Legalization is supported most strongly by Americans in the East and West, and by liberals and moderates. In the South, for example, support has grown from 40% in 2010 to 47% in 2014, and in the Midwest from roughly 40% to 45% during the same period (with some sharp shifts every other year above 50%). Among conservatives, support for legalization has averaged 32.6% over this five year period, 56.8% among moderates, and 72.8% among liberals.
Is this enough public support for complete marijuana legalization throughout the country? Actually, no, it is not. Does this matter? Well, truth be told, yes it does. The legalization movement still has an immense amount of work to be done, and just as support fell from 58% in 2013 to 51% in 2014 it could drop again to under the 50% threshold. The road to legalization covers rough, rocky terrain. Federal prohibition makes the construction of state regulatory systems unnecessarily complicated. This will produce flawed policies with imperfect results and unanticipated consequences, and opponents of legalization will use these to oppose further progress.
Nonetheless, legalization cannot be stopped. Here are 10 reasons why.
10. Diligent Advocates
Legalization has active and well-funded support from a number of prominent advocacy groups, including NORML, MPP, DPA and the ACLU. However it is the overall quality of grass-roots advocates (not to mention the sheer multitude of them) that gives the legalization movement an advantage over the opposition. Marijuana legalization advocates are well-informed, professional, dedicated and motivated by a sense of history.
9. Unappealing Alternatives
No one has or will make a credible argument that criminal laws and sanction will eliminate marijuana use and/or marijuana’s widespread availability. One of the consequences of the emerging legal market is that it puts a brighter light, through contrast, on the illegal market. Untaxed and unregulated are no longer abstract adjectives when it comes to describing the market produced by prohibition. The debate over legalization used to be about values, now it’s about a choice between two markets. When the illegal market is considered in this context, it does not appeal to the American public.
8. A Demoralized Opposition
Losers. Americans do not like losers, and the anti-marijuana movement lost this battle a long time ago. From their point of view, it is hard to have any confidence that this debacle (as they see it) can be reversed. The opposition is now left with petty arguments along the lines that marijuana should be illegal but no one should go to jail when they are arrested, or that it is better for criminal organizations to sell pot because they will keep the price high thus keeping marijuana use minimal. Their explanations about why legalization’s advocates are so successful mask a more troubling issue for the opposition, which is how they managed to squander widespread public support for their position and how their incompetent leadership failed to stop this ongoing and massive repudiation of prohibition that has been growing and succeeding since the mid-1990s.
7. Demographic Changes
Most adults today have a different attitude about marijuana than their parents did. A 50-year-old voter in 2015 was born in 1965 and has grown up seeing the failure of marijuana prohibition, and a large number of these people have first-hand experience with marijuana. They have either tried it, used it, or know people who have. This is not an abstract issue anymore for most Americans, and they are no longer willing to defer to prohibition’s supporters and accept that criminalizing marijuana is the only feasible public policy. More important, though, is that a greater and greater part of the electorate is made up of black, Hispanic and other so-called minority voters who recognize that marijuana arrests have disproportionately targeted them over the last two generations. Simply put, they are tired of marijuana laws being used as a pretext to arrest minority youths.
6. Other Priorities
According to an August 2014 Gallup poll the most important issues facing the United States were dissatisfaction with government, immigration, the state of the economy, jobs and health care. Next on that list, also in order of importance, were foreign policy, ethics and moral concerns, poverty, education and the federal budget deficit. Illegal drugs in general and marijuana in particular are not the popular political issues they were during the Reagan years of the 1980s. When it comes to the use of law enforcement resources the public is a bit more concerned these days with sexual assault on children, the global sex trade, identify theft, heroin overdoses and white-collar crime. Even when it comes to basic issues like public safety it’s a hard sell to divert police resources from street patrols to trips to the station to book marijuana possession offenders. The police have more important responsibilities and limited resources with which to meet them.
5. Appealing Tax Revenue
Colorado raised $60 million in tax revenue in the first 10 months of 2014, suggesting a total of $72 million for the entire year. Here is one, somewhat cynical, way of understanding why that would be appealing to state government: that’s enough money to pay 1,440 state employees a salary of $50,000 a year. A more sophisticated perspective here comes from a long-term view of trends in American politics. Since the civil rights revolution in the 1960s more Americans vote, and as more Americans vote they want and expect more from the politicians they elect to public office. This isn’t about welfare and entitlements, it is about public policy, and issues involving schools, transportation, health care, regulatory systems and public safety. The public wants more from government, and government has to find ways to raise sufficient revenue to address those demands. A legal and growing marijuana industry provides new revenue sources for local, state and eventually the federal government.
4. Reductions in Teen Availability
Marijuana legalization is good public policy. Unlike the illegal market, the legal market will not sell to minors. Colorado authorities have sent undercover operatives into marijuana stores throughout the state; they could not find a store that would sell marijuana to an underage buyer. Marijuana prohibition also inflates the price of marijuana, making it profitable for teenagers to sell it to their friends and schoolmates. A legal market will lower the price of marijuana and make such commerce unprofitable. Legalizing marijuana will reduce availability to teenagers, and as more Americans learn and understand this, more of them will support legalization.
3. Valuable Merchandise
People like marijuana. Consumers find marijuana use a pleasing, useful and satisfying experience. Marijuana is useful to many Americans, for medical and other purposes. Legalization’s opponents have distorted and misrepresented the reasons why people use marijuana, implying that the purpose of marijuana use is intoxication and that continued use is sustained by addiction. In truth, most marijuana is used to engage people in various pursuits, not to disengage and/or escape reality or responsibility. Like alcohol, marijuana can be abused, but most Americans use marijuana with decent and deliberate purpose, including but not limited to treatment of serious medical conditions.
2. A Growing Industry
A recent report suggests that the legal marijuana market is the fastest growing industry in the United States. The entrepreneurial characteristics of this emerging industry are on display at the Cannabis Cup exposition presented by High Times throughout the United States each year. The industry is attracting capital investment, growing in scope and profitability, and in the early stages of launching trade and lobbying groups to advance its interests and protect its profits. There is a cynical way to look at this too, in that industry lobbyists will work their way into the hearts, minds and bank accounts of enough politicians to preserve and protect this new industry. On a more practical level, though, these entrepreneurs provide a mechanism by which government regulators can learn about the industry, gain industry cooperation and devise effective regulations with which to address legitimate public interests such as quality controls, informative labeling and effective age restriction policies. A legal industry can and will work with public representatives, something conspicuously absent from the illegal market culture produced by prohibition.
1. A Humanized Public Understanding of Marijuana Users
The main reason marijuana legalization can’t be stopped is that marijuana use and marijuana users have come out of the shadows. People who use marijuana are normal, everyday Americans who work hard, pay taxes, vote and contribute to American society. They are not abstractions, stoned hippies introverts or pathological deviants. The marijuana issue is no longer contested in the arena of social construction where validity and truth are mere functions of perceived authority and social position. In other words, this is no longer about deferring to anti-drug advocates and pro-prohibition law enforcement. The marijuana user is no longer a caricature, some stereotype for an old movie or bogus anti-drug commercial. The marijuana user is now a gal who lives next door, a guy from work, a son, a daughter, a wife or a husband, a fellow parishioner or a kid down the street. The more the public learns about real marijuana users, and the real reasons they use marijuana, the more they will support legalization.
Marijuana legalization can’t be stopped because it is the right policy, the right thing to do and the right way to treat our fellow Americans.