Americans’ support for marijuana legalization has increased almost 20 points in roughly a decade, and recently surpassed opposition for the first time. And a new study by Brookings Institution Senior Fellows William Galston and E.J. Dionne finds surprising answers to the question of why.
The upswell cuts across political divides thanks to a broad sense that prohibition’s costs outweigh its benefits. Demographics play a key role. Those entering the 18-29 age group favor legalization almost 2 to 1. Only a majority of Americans 65 and older believe marijuana is a gateway drug or should remain illegal. Men support marijuana legalization 57% to 40%. Women oppose it by one statistically insignificant point, 49% to 48%. But males are more likely to have tried the drug -- 52% versus 41% -- and this accounts for the difference. Indeed, the large number of people who have experimented with marijuana to date has been key to the broader movement.
The issue runs deeper than demographics, however. There has been a subtle but consequential shift in attitudes. The perceived toxicity of marijuana, specifically compared to alcohol, has fallen significantly. Although a firm majority of Americans remain uncomfortable with marijuana use, they are ambivalent about its prohibition. Few see it as harmless, but roughly half of the country has no opinion about whether marijuana use is moral.
This allows practical considerations to take precedence, and Americans are increasingly unconvinced that the benefits of prohibition are worth its cost. They see a broken system that squanders police resources. They also see significant forgone tax revenue and, as in the case of Kentucky’s industrial hemp push, jobs. Many legalization supporters want a vehicle for effective regulation. As pollster Anna Greenberg noted at a Brookings discussion, many citizens no longer feel their principal concerns -- public safety and children’s exposure -- are adequately addressed by the status quo.
Sean Trende, senior elections analyst at RealClearPolitics and co-author of The Almanac of American Politics, offered a compelling cultural explanation for the politics of social issues. We define vice in terms of what lower-class people do, he explained, or rather our sense of what they do. Mexican migrant farm workers brought marijuana to Los Estados Unidos. Black Americans were thought by the white picket mainstream to be its main users. This perception fed fear, spawning cinema classics like Reefer Madness and (Trende’s personal favorite) Marihuana: The Weed with Roots in Hell.
Baby Boomers were the first generation born after this mass hysteria. They experimented in college, found few ill effects even when they inhaled, but toughened their stance after assuming the burdens of parenthood. Indeed, Greenberg said the successful Washington State initiative she worked on used “essentially conservative arguments.”
Gay marriage holds a political preview of the burgeoning marijuana legalization debate. Ellen Degeneres’ coming out paved the way for Will and Grace and Modern Family, thoroughly well-to-do characters, almost in the vein of the Huxtable family. The Democratic Party went from a libertarian message of "do what you want" to the American values message of "hate is not a family value," a reframing Trende called brilliant. “To me, this is not about a liberal or libertarian cultural shift,” he said, but rather “things that appeal to the great American middle class.”
If and when bourgeoise ambivalence gives way to acceptance and identification, Reefer Madness will go the way of Demon Rum. But uncertainties remain. The next stage of debate will be shaped by the outcome of Colorado's and Washington’s experiments in democracy. Neither side should hold its breath.
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