The most recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll of American attitudes toward marijuana found a record 34% favored legalizing it, the highest number since pollsters began asking the question in 1969, the newspaper reported on August 24.
Support for legalization had hovered at about 25% for the past two decades, said USA Today, before rising to 31% in August 2000 and 34% earlier this month. Legalization supporters were most likely to be in the 18-49 age group, residents of the west, and independent voters. Opposition was strongest among the elderly, weekly churchgoers and Republicans, the poll found.
The United States still lags behind Britain and Canada, both of which have repeatedly reported solid majorities in favor of legalization in recent polls, but marijuana reform activists here in the US are still pleased.
"This is the highest level of support we've ever registered," said Keith Stroup, head of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (http://www.norml.org), "and it's moving in our direction. We should all feel very optimistic," he told DRCNet.
"There is an interesting dynamic under way," Stroup said. "We are getting closer to our goal than even the numbers suggest. There is an emerging consensus that the war on drugs is a failure," Stroup said, citing the recent Pew poll that found 74% agreeing with that statement. "The idea of a consensus in favor of the drug war has been demolished. That is an incredibly important point. We're spending $40 billion a year on something that flat-out is not working. Everyone understands that now."
The time is ripe to build a new consensus, Stroup told DRCNet. "The politicians have been timid, they've been afraid to dissent from the drug war, but they read the polls, too. More and more of them will feel safe coming out now, and the numbers will only increase as the debate is joined," he said. "Now the question is what are the alternatives? As we look at what makes sense, legalization will continue to gain support."
But the word itself is still problematic, said Stroup. "We would have received even higher levels of support with a question that avoided the L-word," Stroup said. "If you instead asked 'should we regulate and control marijuana?' we would be close to 50% and if you asked 'should we continue to arrest marijuana smokers?' we would probably get 60% support," he argued. "We all know that when you say 'legalization,' that frightens a good chunk of the American public. They think it means no controls when in fact it means greater control than there is now. This is a semantic problem that we can overcome as Americans begin to grasp the distinctions between legalization, decriminalization and prohibition," Stoup said.
Both Stroup and Chuck Thomas of the Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org) pointed to the medical marijuana issue as reshaping public attitudes. "People rethink their position on marijuana when they see a federal government disinterested in the plight of patients," said Stroup.
For Thomas, the link between medical marijuana and increased support for legal recreational marijuana is indirect. "Just as the fact we have prescription drugs does not translate into support for recreational use of those drugs, I never thought that allowing medical marijuana would translate into allowing marijuana for recreational use," he told DRCNet, "but the federal government's approach has just backfired on them. "They thought if they could portray marijuana as so evil it could not even be used as medicine, then it certainly couldn't be used recreationally. But with their crackdown on medical marijuana, people see that while the government says it cares about people's health what it really cares about is prohibition. The federal government made a big mistake back in 1996. If they had allowed it to be sold in pharmacies as a prescription drug, people would still think the government did care about people's health, but they took the opposite approach."
But, Thomas added, there are other factors as well. He pointed toward Europe, where from Prague to Amsterdam and Lisbon to London marijuana use has been essentially normalized. "Legalization is no longer a bizarre fantasy notion," he said. "People can picture what ending marijuana prohibition would look like."
And he gives the drug reform movement some credit. "We're up nine points since 1995, the year MPP was formed," he noted, "and I think we'll have majority support within a decade. Even though our movement is still greatly outspent by our opponents, we have been doing a good job of getting the word out about the harms of prohibition. We have a solid base, and as those people get ready to get more involved -- whether through writing letters, talking to their friends or neighbors, or giving money to groups like MPP and DRCNet -- we will only grow stronger," Thomas said.
And don't forget public protest, Stroup added. "There is a massive political change underway," Stroup said. "We just had about 100,000 people gather at the Seattle Hempfest. There will be about 75,000 at the Boston Freedom Rally on September 15. With rare exceptions, no other issue is pulling that number of people into what are, after all, political events. We need to be working with people in other parts of the country to do similar events," he said.