Maintaining A Majority For Marijuana Reform
Our efforts must be focused on ending marijuana prohibition.
By Keith Stroup, founder of NORML
The marijuana legalization movement is at an exciting time in this country. More and more states are legalizing marijuana as a medicine for seriously ill patients, 17 have decriminalized it and a handful of states are now moving to full legalization for all adults. After more than 75 years of criminal prohibition, it is reasonable to ask why this badly needed change is happening at this particular moment.
The Big Shift
We are finally winning this long struggle because we have, at last, won the hearts and minds of a majority of Americans. Still, it will take several years for the victory to be completed.
When we founded NORML in 1970, a Gallup Poll taken the prior year found only 12% of the American public favored the legalization of marijuana – 88% were opposed to our position. With such a robust opposition, it is easy to understand why elected officials, including many who personally understood that prohibition was a failed public policy, continued for decades to support the status quo. Elected officials have a clear, number-one priority: Getting themselves re-elected. Acts of legislative courage are much further down on their list of things to do in office.
But over these past years, older Americans, who were effectively indoctrinated by decades of government “reefer madness” propaganda, passed away. They have been steadily replaced by younger Americans, many of whom were more familiar with marijuana smoking and think it’s no big deal, certainly not warranting criminal treatment. Around 1990, public support for marijuana legalization began to creep upward.
Also, with the advent of the internet, advocates of legalization found a tool that permitted us to effectively re-educate millions of Americans. Through websites, chat-rooms and social media, we began to effectively rebut the claims of the drug warriors that had frightened many Americans into supporting prohibition. We were able to present a far more accurate picture of marijuana smokers as otherwise law-abiding citizens who work hard, raise families, pay taxes and contribute in a positive ways to our communities. Let’s face it: cannabis consumers own the internet.
The Concept of Responsible Marijuana Smoking
A big piece of this re-positioning of cannabis consumers in the public mind was the introduction of the concept of responsible marijuana smoking. In 1996, the NORML Board of Directors adopted what we called “The Principles of Responsible Cannabis Use.” This briefly outlines the rules a marijuana smoker should follow, including: the recognition that marijuana smoking is not for kids; that no responsible marijuana smoker should ever drive while impaired on marijuana; that smokers should be sensitive to the set and setting, and should avoid use when the conditions are not present for a safe, pleasant and productive experience. We also recommend that smokers should avoid usage to the extent that it impairs health, personal development or achievement. We believe that responsible smokers should respect the rights of others, and observe accepted standards of courtesy and public propriety, including respecting the preference of those who wish to avoid cannabis entirely.
These principles are really just common sense rules which most of us follow in our lives already. Still this was the first time any advocacy group had attempted to define responsible marijuana use, and it permitted NORML and others to begin to distinguish between marijuana use and marijuana abuse. Prior to that, the government had claimed that all marijuana use was abuse, a basis that by definition ruled out the possibility of legalization.
While the increase in public support was significant following the Marijuana Commission Report in 1972 through 1978, rising to 28% in support, the mood of the country then became more conservative. (Remember Nancy Reagan and her “Just Say No” campaign?) Our support levels slipped slightly and remained essentially flat until 1999. But by the late 1990’s, the public had become more accepting of marijuana smoking, and that trend has only accelerated in recent years. Our support nationwide reached 50% for the first time in 2011, and continues to rise. According to the latest 2014 Gallup Poll, 58% of the public currently supports legalization.
Since marijuana smokers comprise only 14% of the public, we simply do not have the numbers to legalize marijuana by ourselves. We now enjoy nationwide majority support for reform because of the success we have had convincing the other 86% of the public who do not consume cannabis that prohibition has been a complete failure. These crucial supporters are not pro-pot – they are anti-prohibition. This distinction is important to keep in mind as we move forward.
We know from exit polling done when marijuana legalization was on the ballot in California in 2012 that those who voted against the proposal were principally concerned about two potential problem areas: a possible increase in impaired drivers on the road if marijuana were legalized and a possible spike in adolescent marijuana smoking if marijuana were legalized.
The fear of an increase in the number of stoned drivers on the roads is largely misdirected. First, an estimated 30 million Americans smoke marijuana each year in this country and most of us occasionally drive afterwards. We certainly did not give up driving when we began smoking marijuana, although most of us recognize that a marijuana user is somewhat impaired for an hour or so after smoking and adjust our driving patterns accordingly.
There has been no uptick in drivers impaired on marijuana or charged with DUID offenses, even as the number of marijuana smokers continues to increase.
Scientific research shows that it is far more dangerous to drive after drinking alcohol, as the mistakes made are aggressive and often deadly – speeding, passing on a curve, and other reckless behavior. Smoking marijuana does impair the driver, but these drivers realize they are impaired and generally drive more slowly to accommodate other drivers, rendering the potential harm far less dangerous.
It is worth noting the particular danger of mixing alcohol and marijuana before driving. Studies show they exacerbate the impairment, and together are far more debilitating than the use of either drug by itself. One should never drive after smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol – designated drivers are necessary in such situations. And we must get this message out to consumers.
Similarly, adolescents have always experimented with marijuana, with roughly half of high school seniors acknowledging they have used marijuana by the time they graduate. This has been the trend for the last several decades. But the same is true for their experimentation with alcohol, and the majority of adolescents admit that it is more difficult for them to obtain alcohol underage than marijuana. That’s because with alcohol, they either have to find an older friend to buy the alcohol for them, or get a fake ID. With marijuana purchased on the black market, no one asks for an ID. Legalizing and regulating marijuana, with appropriate age controls, will make marijuana less available to adolescents, not more available.
Legalizing marijuana following 75 years of prohibition is a big step for any state to make. If it is to be deemed successful by the general public, it requires those of us who smoke to exercise our new right in a responsible manner, and to keep in mind the importance of maintaining the political support of the majority of Americans who do not smoke. They continue to hold the key to fully legalizing marijuana, even though they are not consumers themselves.
The Gift From Obama
When both Colorado and Washington voters approved full marijuana legalization in 2012, the Federal Government was faced with the option of going to federal court and seeking to enjoin the provisions allowing for the licensing off marijuana growers and distributors under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution. No state has a legal obligation to mimic federal law, so any state could remove its laws against marijuana. However, when a state adopts what the courts call a “positive conflict” with federal law, the federal law prevails. Most legal observers believe the Department of Justice would have prevailed in such a legal showdown.
In a move that surprised most, the Obama Justice Department took a different route – one that was invaluable to the legalization movement. They issued a series of memos by Deputy Attorney General Cole laying out several criteria under which any state legalization law (including both medical use and full legalization) would be evaluated. Essentially the Feds would stand down and permit these laws to be fully implemented, as long as the states made a good-faith effort to minimize adolescent use and avoid diversion of marijuana to other states.
In 2012, President Obama gave the legalization movement two to three years to demonstrate that we can end prohibition and regulate and tax marijuana in a responsible manner. This would be without the fear of federal interference – a sort of free-zone until the end of his second term. Make no mistake, this is an incredible gift. This window allows us to demonstrate that legalization works better than prohibition for everyone – law-enforcement, as well as consumers. It also gives everyone time to observe one of the most compelling arguments: that it will raise a significant new stream of badly-needed revenue for the states. If we succeed, it is hard to imagine the next administration, whether Republican or Democrat, will have the political support required to attempt to roll-back our progress at the state level.
We must use this time wisely to approach legalization the same way the vast majority of non-smokers do. Our efforts must be focused on ending marijuana prohibition, not advancing some pro-pot agenda. Otherwise responsible marijuana smokers will continue to be arrested at disturbing rates. If we keep our eyes firmly on the goal, victory is within our grasp.