Advocates of ending marijuana prohibition have been wandering the desert of American politics for forty years and have yet to find the Promised Land, but a new poll provides the latest evidence that at least in some parts of the country, the public is ready to say "legalize it," or more benignly, "regulate and control it." The new Zogby International poll of registered US voters finds that a majority of voters contacted on both the West Coast and the East Coast would support amending federal law "to let states legally regulate and tax marijuana the way they do liquor and gambling."
Support for letting states tax and regulate marijuana also divides along religious and age group lines, sometimes in a surprising fashion. Protestants were least likely to support state marijuana reform (38%) -- and only 26% of "born again" people -- while 48% of Catholics, 60% of non-believers, and 70% of Jews approved.
More unexpected were the differences among age groups. While 18-29 year-olds unsurprisingly strongly favored state regulation (66%), the opinion of 30-49 year-olds was the reverse, with 58% opposed. Favorable opinion rose again in the 50-65 group before declining in the post-65 group. Commissioned by the NORML Foundation, the Zogby poll is based on interviews with 1,004 registered voters. It has a margin of error of 3.2%.
The Zogby poll is the latest to suggest that support for marijuana law reform is approaching critical mass, at least in some parts of the country. A Gallup poll released in November showed 36% of adults nationwide supporting marijuana legalization, an all-time high, with 47% of Westerners agreeing with freeing the weed. Support for reform can reach even higher, if the right question is asked. A 2001 Zogby poll asked respondents if they favored "arresting and jailing marijuana law offenders," and 61% answered no. In its soundings in Nevada, where it is backing an initiative to legalize the adult possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and create a system of regulated distribution, the Marijuana Policy Project reports a substantial difference in favorable responses when potential voters are asked if they support "legalizing marijuana" or "regulating and controlling marijuana."
"Public support for replacing the illicit marijuana market with a legally regulated, controlled market similar to alcohol -- complete with age restrictions and quality controls -- continues to grow," NORML executive director Allen St. Pierre said. "NORML's challenge is to convert this growing public support into a tangible public policy that no longer criminalizes those adults who use marijuana responsibly."
But if support for reform is nearing critical mass, that hasn't yet translated into significant victories at the state or federal level. While 11 states decriminalized marijuana possession in the 1970s, none have since, and the federal marijuana laws remain rock solid. Real progress has been made with medical marijuana, with 12 states now allowing it, but when it comes to recreational pot use, victories have been limited to the municipal level, as with the "lowest law enforcement priority" initiatives in Seattle and Oakland, and last November's stunning Denver vote to legalize the possession of up to an ounce. The organizers of the Denver victory, SAFER (Safer Alternatives for Enjoyable Recreation), are now working to get a statewide initiative on the ballot for November. It would simply legalize the possession of up to an ounce for adults.
To win victories -- to legalize marijuana -- will require identifying friends and foes and crafting messages aimed at both groups, as well as using new and old media to get out the message, and good, old-fashioned work in the trenches of electoral and legislative politics, reform leaders told DRCNet this week. It will also require continued efforts at the federal, state, and local levels.
"If you can address the fears about kids using marijuana, you can make some progress," said St. Pierre. "The poll showed that support drops off for people from 28 to 50, the ones who are getting married and having kids. But as soon as they get divorced or turn 50, the numbers start going up again. Apparently, when you get married or have kids you lose half your brain," he continued. "This makes it very clear why the Office of National Drug Control Policy is so obsessed with trying to communicate with parents; they're their key demographic. They take a subpopulation of adults who would otherwise be neutral or positive and try to whip up the fear."
Calming those fears is crucial, St. Pierre said. "We did a NORML road show out in Seattle last week where we gave folks like Rick Steves, Jeffrey Steinborn, and Dominic Holden 10 or 15 minutes to try to persuade the audience to endorse marijuana reform," said St. Pierre. "I think those audience members who went in opposed came out at least neutral. When you have a chance to work through this, you can leave your audience with the feeling that there is a pragmatic, non-scary way to regulate pot. You can point out that it is fear and paranoia keeping the status quo intact, even though it doesn't reduce teen marijuana use. You can point out that tobacco is legal, but we've reduced its use in half. You can reach these people."
Progress will require taking advantage of both traditional and new media, said St. Pierre. "I think there is opportunity in emerging technologies like podcasting and video blogging, but we also need a sustained and well-done advertising campaign in the traditional media. Most drug reform advertising has been ad hoc or geared toward particular events. I think even just an alternative newspaper ad campaign would be remarkably successful in reaching our stakeholders. There are 133 alternative papers in the US, and that demographic has no equal when it comes to our target audiences."
While NORML is hitting the hustings and plotting media war, MPP is working the corridors of Congress and, through its grants program, providing funding for the statewide Nevada initiative and a handful of local initiatives in the West. The Zogby poll shows that nearly half the nation is ready to let the states try their hand at alternative marijuana policies, and Congress should take note, said MPP's Kampia.
"If half the American people want this, why doesn't half of Congress support it?" he asked, carefully pointing out that the Zogby poll measured support for a state's right to regulate marijuana, not support for legalization itself. "Why aren't we seeing some movement in Congress?"
Kampia and MPP are doing all they can to create some movement, he said. "Right now, we are on the brink of getting a bill introduced in the House to let states do what they want on marijuana policy. It's got about 15 cosponsors. We don't expect to even get a hearing this year, but it's a start."
While action on the federal front is clearly a long-term prospect, high levels of support for marijuana law reform in the West make it the region to watch this year and in the near future. The reasons the West is so relatively pot-friendly are historical, cultural, and institutional, reformers speculated.
"The West is where it began," said St. Pierre. "If you are a middle-aged person in California, you've been hearing a public discussion about marijuana all your adult life. There was a legalization bill in 1972, the Moscone Act in 1976, Jack Herer talks about trying to get it on the ballot in 1980. And of course, there's Hollywood and the whole culture of deviancy. But the thing is, if you're an adult in California, you've already discussed this. Now the debate is moving away from legalization or not to whether marijuana should be organic or not."
"Things are clearly further along in the West, where there is more of a live and let live attitude," said Kampia. "Just as you see stronger support for medical marijuana, so you see stronger support for non-medical marijuana. But the reason the West is so far ahead politically is clearly because of the initiative process. That's the number one answer. In the East, where few states allow initiatives, you can find your hands tied very easily. All it takes is a committee chairman opposed to marijuana and you're stuck."
Tell it to Whitney Taylor. From her office in downtown Boston, Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts director Taylor is deeply involved in efforts to get a marijuana decriminalization bill moving in the Bay State. For Taylor, marijuana politics is largely a statehouse game subject to all the inertial forces of the legislative process, and she said that process would most likely kill the bill this year.
In the East, the initiative process is a rare thing, unlike the West, Taylor sighed. "The whole reason the West is so far ahead is the initiative process," said Taylor, who spent years in California working on that state's Proposition 36, the "treatment not jail" initiative and then monitoring its implementation. "We won that with 61% of the vote, and when I went to the statehouse after that it was like I had an 800-pound gorilla by my side. Win an initiative, and the whole legislative process gets a whole lot easier."
Dealing with legislators without that boost isn't as fun or easy, Taylor said. "You have legislators who have been getting elected on the 'tough on crime/tough on drugs' schtick for decades, and that's difficult to turn around quickly," she told DRCNet. "They are afraid of losing their job if they vote for marijuana regulation. I wish we had legislators and public officials who did what their constituents wanted and created policies based on science and efficacy. It is not so much a matter or educating the legislators anymore -- they will tell you privately they get it -- but of advocacy to persuade them to stand up and be brave. You have to give them cover when you can, or you need people whose impeccable law enforcement credentials provide them with that cover."
Part of the difficulty in winning marijuana victories in state legislatures has to do more with the legislative process than with pot itself. In New Mexico, for example, medical marijuana was stymied last year by an unrelated political dispute between its main sponsor and a key legislator. This year, the bill advanced rapidly during a frenetic short session only to die thanks to another legislative maneuver -- it was shunted to an unrelated committee headed by a hostile chairman, where it died.
The same sort of legislative politicking is an obstacle in Massachusetts, too, said Taylor. "Here we have a Democratic legislature that is dying to win back the governorship, and they're up against a Republican candidate running as a criminologist. This legislature wants to avoid offering her up any softballs, so our decrim bill is probably going to die in committee."
And then there is legislative business as usual. "In addition to trying to win back the governorship, there are perennial budget issues, there's the death penalty, and on and on," said Taylor. "When you're trying to work with legislators, you have to figure out what else is on their plates. Yes, their plates are full, but it's my job to get the troops lined up district by district, so I go see the key legislators for my issues and either educate them or support and push them. As reformers, we know we have the science, we have the polling numbers, but we have to understand the institutional obstacles and problems and find ways to deal with them."
It's a different ball game out West this year. Following the lead of Oakland, where Measure Z, ordering the city to make marijuana offenses the "lowest law enforcement priority" and lobby the state to regulate it, passed overwhelmingly in 2004, local initiatives bankrolled in part by the MPP grants program are underway in Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Santa Monica, and West Hollywood. Victories there this fall could provide a big push for a statewide effort, said Kampia.
"A sweep this fall will hopefully create a statewide news buzz and plant the seeds of a statewide movement to entirely end marijuana prohibition," he said. "Also, these sorts of victories are the best way of persuading legislators their constituents are on our side on this issue. State legislators in these four jurisdictions will be solicited to introduce bills to tax and regulate at the state level. Victory in the fall could also attract the attention of major donors who could really help in a broader statewide campaign."
Voters in Nevada will have the chance to approve the adult use and regulated distribution of marijuana in November. If they do approve the measure, Nevada would be the first state to legalize marijuana in the voting booth (unless Colorado joins it on Election Day). Alaska, currently the only state to allow limited legal possession of marijuana (up to a quarter-pound in one's home), went that route through the state Supreme Court, not via popular vote or the legislature.
"If we can win in Nevada, it would be the biggest victory in the history of the marijuana policy reform movement," said Kampia. "While people may disagree about the likelihood of our winning, no one disagrees about that. It would change everything. Not only would it be a huge rebuff to the federal war on marijuana users, it should also cause a massive infusion of cash into the reform movement as we show victory is possible. It would immediately improve the lives of a couple hundred thousand Nevadans."
And it would provide a big impetus to move on to other states. "Alaska would probably be next, then states like Washington and Oregon," Kampia predicted.