Scofflaws Paved the Way for Legal Marijuana
Most Americans now favor legalizing marijuana, including large majorities across the political spectrum. Just this year, New Mexico, New York, and Virginia have eliminated state bans and opened the door to legal markets in the stuff. Even Congress is considering federal legalization (though the White House isn’t necessarily on board). Via the ballot box and through legislation, authorities in the United States are reforming the treatment of marijuana and those who enjoy its use. But, as is so often the case, the impetus for change came much earlier—from scofflaws who did as they pleased, normalized the use of an illegal intoxicant, and revealed prohibition as unenforceable.
“Roughly half of adults (48%) say they have ever tried marijuana, the highest percentage ever,” Pew reported in 2013 after Colorado and Washington became the first states to defy federal law and legalize marijuana for recreational use. “Just two years ago, 40% said they had tried marijuana. In both 2003 and 2001, 38% said they had used marijuana.”
True, marijuana was available for medical use in a few states starting with the passage of California’s Prop. 215 in 1996, and in some jurisdictions “medical” was generously interpreted. But it’s obvious that marijuana was increasingly popular and ever-more widely accepted well before it was legally available even for nominally medicinal purposes.
“The possibility that marijuana use is on the rise is worrisome,” fretted the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) in its 1994 Marijuana Situation Assessment. “Since marijuana is by far the most widely used illicit drug, small percentage increases in use mean that large numbers of Americans have crossed the line from not breaking the drug laws to breaking them.”
What troubled the ONDCP was that 9 percent of respondents to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse admitted using marijuana in the previous year (a tighter measure than Pew’s “ever tried” question) in 1993. About 16.5 percent of men between the ages of 18 and 25 said they’d used marijuana in the previous month.
“One possibility is that marijuana use is a barometer of public attitudes about illicit drug use,” mused the ONDCP. “If more people are smoking marijuana, it could reflect increased acceptance of illicit drug use in general.”
It’s fair to assume that more people were enjoying the illegal intoxicant as its use became more widely accepted, and that wider acceptance encouraged those so inclined to indulge. As people ignored the law, their actions normalized marijuana use and cast doubt on restrictive laws. Two years after the ONDCP report, California approved Prop. 215. Sixteen years after that, voters in Colorado and Washington swept away state laws against recreational marijuana. The feedback loop o
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