Pubdate: Tue, 04 Feb 2014
Source: Times, The (Trenton, NJ)
Contact:  2014 The Times
Author: Ronald Fraser
Note: Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on public policy issues for the 
DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization.


When asked, "Do you think the use of marijuana should be made legal, 
or not?" a 2013 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 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 provide an alternative explanation. They 
tell us laws do not necessarily constitute absolute declarations of 
right and wrong behavior. 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.

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

As long as the public accepts the moral standards found in a law, it 
will likely 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 and 
its enforcement actions.

The 1969 poll. The 1970 federal Controlled Substances Act classified 
both 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. But as the drug war played out in the states, public 
opinion moved in the other direction. 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. Gallup's poll taken that year captured America's newly 
emerging attitude toward the use of marijuana.

The 2013 poll. Here demographics and politics help us understand why 
Gallup found 58 percent in favor of legalization. While 65 percent of 
the Democrats 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 65 
years of age favor legalization. The driving force behind the 
legalization trend is composed mostly of liberals and younger Americans.

In addition, the state-federal medical marijuana gap widened still 
further. By 2013, according to the National Conference of State 
Legislatures, 20 states and the District of Columbia have enacted 
medical marijuana statutes while the still extant 1970 federal law 
maintains that marijuana has no known medical use.

Ever-rising enforcement costs, overcrowded prisons and SWAT team 
tactics made good news items and raised doubts about the drug war. 
But the widespread acceptance of marijuana for medical purposes, 
directly defying Washington's characterization of the drug, and 
recently passed laws in Colorado and Washington State legalizing 
marijuana for recreational use, represent a deeper, more fundamental 
values shift within the American population.

By the time the 2013 Gallup poll was taken, 58 percent of American 
adults gave a green light to legalization, since they no longer 
support discredited laws declaring marijuana to be a very dangerous 
drug with no medicinal uses. The facts have shown otherwise.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom