RONALD FRASER: 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 said yes, compared with 31 percent in 2000 and 12 percent in 1969.

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 said yes, compared with 31 percent in 2000 and 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. Through 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 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 actions, 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 marijuana and heroin as "most dangerous" substances with no 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, 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 Democrats favored legalization, only 35 percent of the Republicans surveyed supported it. Sixty-seven percent of respondents age 18 to 29 said yes, while only 45 percent of the population older than 65 favored legalization. The driving force behind the legalization trend is composed mostly of liberals and younger Americans.

In addition, the state-federal marijuana gap widened 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 medical marijuana has no known medical use.

Rising enforcement cost, 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 dangerous drug with no medicinal uses. The facts have shown otherwise.

Fraser writes on public policy issues for the DKT Library Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization. Write him at .

What To Read Next
Get Local