How America went to pot |

How America went to pot

When asked, "Do you think the use of marijuana should be made legal or not?" a recent Gallup poll found that 58 percent of American adults responded, "Yes," compared to 31 percent in 2000 and only 12 percent in 1969.

Let's consider two ways this huge shift in public opinion might be explained. One contends that misguided and lopsided enforcement of the marijuana prohibition laws is the cause. The other, more fundamental view, contends that Americans simply no longer see any reason to continue outlawing this relatively benign substance.

Enforcement failure — State and federal laws prohibiting the use of marijuana have often been zealously enforced. Over the years, the media have directed public attention to the high costs of enforcement and the skyrocketing number of marijuana-possession arrests. As word spread of notorious no-knock drug raids, forced entry by military style SWAT teams and the fact that police arrests for marijuana possession nets many times more blacks than whites — all the while failing to deter the use of marijuana — public support shifted from prohibition to legalization. In short, a law prohibiting a nonviolent, peaceful activity — especially a law that can't be enforced — is not worthy of public support.

Values shift — Sociologists tell us that failed enforcement is not the answer, that laws are better understood as a form of public communication describing the moral values associated with an orderly society. From this perspective, marijuana laws are simply statements that smoking pot is not acceptable.

But when citizens no longer agree with the moral standards imposed by the law, they are likely to reject the law itself and its enforcement actions.

Enforcement actions, according to this model, are also a form of public communication, but with purposes other than deterring drug use. News of drug raids and courtroom punishments mainly serve to dramatize and validate the moral standards expressed in marijuana prohibition laws and to symbolically reassure citizens that they do, in fact, live in an orderly society.

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If citizens accept the moral standards found in a law, they will accept the enforcement tactics used to validate those standards. But when citizens no longer agree with the moral standards imposed by the law, they are likely to reject the law itself and its enforcement actions. The 1969 poll — The 1970 federal Controlled Substances Act classified marijuana and heroin as "most dangerous" substances with no known medical use. Gallup's 1969 poll, in which 88 percent of the respondents rejected marijuana legalization, seems to confirm that Americans accepted this portrayal of marijuana.

The 2000 poll — As the drug war played out in the states, the polls moved in the other direction as states passed medical marijuana laws. By 2000, eight states had already approved the use of marijuana for pain relief, nausea and appetite stimulation associated with cancer, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis.

The 2013 poll — By 2013, 20 states and the District of Columbia had enacted medical marijuana statutes while the 1970 federal law remained unchanged. Demographics are important, too. While 65 percent of the Democrats surveyed favored legalization, only 35 percent of the Republicans surveyed did. Sixty-seven percent of respondents aged 18-29 said "Yes," while only 45 percent of the population over age 65 favored legalization. The driving force behind legalization is composed mostly of liberals and younger Americans. By the time the 2013 Gallup poll was taken, 58 percent of American adults gave a green light to legalization because they no longer supported the morally bankrupt laws declaring marijuana to be a very dangerous drug with no medicinal uses when the facts have shown otherwise.

Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization. Write him at:

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