The movement to legalize marijuana hit a major milestone yesterday. According to a Pew Research Poll, for the first time a majority of the American public favors legalizing marijuana. Pew’s report notes that while support has ebbed and flowed over the course of past decades, public opinion has changed dramatically in the last few years, with support for legalization rising 11 points since 2010.
What’s the Big Idea?
The rapid transformation in public opinion on legalizing marijuana mirrors changes in support for gay marriage in a number of interesting, yet also contradictory ways.
According to Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, both “involve issues of fundamental freedom basically about the right to be left alone for what you do in the privacy of your own home.” Nadelmann argues that both “involve very deep seated fears and prejudices” as well.
Nadelmann also sees a similarity in the process of reforming laws around these two issues. In both cases “it is very much connected to people’s coming out,” he says. In other words, there was a transformation in the world of public media and entertainment, as well as a transformation in peoples’ private lives. In terms of marriage equality, Nadelmann says this involved “people who are gay coming out of the closet and basically challenging friends and families to say how could you treat me like a criminal or somebody less than equal?”
That’s beginning to happen in the marijuana world. However, Nadelmann notes that when it comes to marijuana, “people feel comfortable saying ‘I used to be a marijuana user,’ but they’re still not comfortable saying ‘I am currently a marijuana consumer.'” So that’s one of the major differences.
What’s the Significance?
Nadelmann notes that one of the key hurdles for gay people coming out is “for them sometimes coming out could be traumatic in terms of one’s family or personal relationships, maybe more so than coming out as a marijuana user.” On the other hand, “what gay people did not have to worry about to nearly the same extent,” Nadleman says, “was the existence of criminal laws that could put you in jail for that activity.” In other words, you had to be caught in the act of sodomy — which was still criminalized in a few states until recently — “but you weren’t gonna be criminalized or have your freedom taken away simply for identifying as a gay person,” Nadelmann says.
In the case of marijuana, simply being in possession can result in your being arrested and having a criminal record for life. Also consider drug testing. “Imagine if there had been testing to determine if people were gay back in the 50s, 60s or 70s,” Nadelmann says. “That would have been a horrifying thing.” And yet, that’s the case with marijuana today. “People can be tested not to determine whether or not they’re high on the job,” Nadelmann points out, “but whether or not they smoked a joint over the weekend.”
So even while the evolution of public opinion on these two issues seems very similar, the deeper you look at our culture and legal system the more those similarities start to break down. When it comes to gay marriage, an increasing number of senior political leaders are coming out publicly in support, “sometimes even being out ahead of public opinion on this,” Nadelmann notes. You don’t find that to be the case with marijuana.
Nadelmann says the momentum around this issue is largely coming up “at the level of public opinion and civil society and state government,” such as the ballot initiative process that happened in Washington and Colorado.
On the national stage there are remarkably few leaders who support legalizing marijuana. “There’s nobody in the U.S. Senate willing to say outright they support legalizing marijuana,” Nadelmann says. “Only in the last year did a couple dozen congressmen sign on to a bill by Barney Frank and Ron Paul to end federal marijuana prohibition,” he points out.
Call it the third rail in American politics. Elected officials continue to follow rather than lead on this issue, Nadelmann says even though “more and more are privately telling me and my colleagues they’re with us but they’re not yet ready to step out.
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