Public policy, in a democracy, depends on the will of a majority of the citizens. Only when a clear majority favor a change in policy can that change occur, and even then, when working with elected legislators, these is always a significant lag between a change in the public attitudes, and a change in public policy. Most elected officials, with an eye towards being re-elected, find it safer to vote for the status quo, until it is unavoidably obvious they are on the losing side.
Fortunately, in half the states citizens have the option of going around their elected state legislatures and changing public policy by a voter initiative – a direct vote of the people. Which explains how the marijuana legalization movement has been so successful over the last few years. As public attitudes have increasingly shifted against prohibition, and in support of legalization, we have had the ability to ask the citizens in several states to approve legalization, despite the trepidation of their state elected officials.
And that has allowed us to enact legalization in a few states several years earlier than would have been the case if we would have had to move the proposal through the state legislature. For that, we are truly benefiting from the successes of the Progressive movement of an earlier era, for the concept of a voter initiative.
The Latest Gallup Poll
But none of that matters unless a proposed change in policy enjoys the support of a majority of the public. And as the latest Gallup Poll results underscored, the support for legalizing marijuana continues to increase, and there is every reason to believe that trend will only increase in the coming years. And the political implications of that are obvious.
More specifically, this latest Gallup Poll found that 58 percent of the public nationwide now support the full legalization of marijuana, matching the highest level of support Gallup has ever found over 46 years of polling on the question.
Gallup first polled the American public about their support for legalizing marijuana in 1969, the year before NORML was founded, and found the support level at only 12 percent. That number rose to 28 percent by 1977, before beginning a decline, falling to 23 percent by 1985. Support then again began to rise gradually over the next 25 years, until finally reaching 50 percent in 2011. Gallup found support peaking at 58 percent in 2013, before showing a decline to 51 percent in 2014 (those numbers are within the 4 percent margin of error for their telephone survey of just over 1,000 respondents), and then rebounding to 58 percent again in 2015.
These latest 2015 findings were overwhelmingly favorable in all age groups, with a majority level of support in all age categories, except seniors (my own group), and even there we are showing big gains.
Younger Americans, Democrats and independents are the most likely to favor legalizing cannabis, while Republicans and Americans over the age of 65 are least likely to do so. Among those poll respondents age 18 to 34, 71 percent endorse legalization. Among respondents age 35 to 49 years of age, 64 percent support legalizing marijuana. Among those age 65 and up, support fell to 35 percent, but this too reflected a sharp increase in support.
We Are Outliving Our Opponents
At NORML we have often joked that our strategy, if all else failed (and there were certainly decades when we were making very little measurable progress), was to out-live our opponents. We were only partially kidding, as we were aware that younger Americans were far more supportive of legalization than were older Americans, and eventually we would win.
The most significant implications of this latest Gallup data is the likelihood that this trend will continue for many years in the future, as more seniors are replaced by younger Americans, making it possible for us in the next few years to adopt legalization in many more states that offer a voter initiative; and importantly, in many other states that do not, by way of the state legislature. Even elected officials can only ignore the will of the public for so long, before either supporting that change, or being replaced by those who do. It is only a matter of time.
The poll’s authors suggested the future looks positive for those who favor legalization. “Given the patterns of support by age, that percentage should continue to grow in the future. … These trends suggest that state and local governments may come under increasing pressure to ease restrictions on marijuana use, if not go even further like the states of Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Alaska in making recreational marijuana use completely legal.”
Or as NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano has pointed out, continuing to support marijuana prohibition is now a “fringe position” in America. “These results ought to embolden campaigning politicians, as well as elected officials, to take a more pronounced stance in favor of legalizing and regulating cannabis in a manner that is consistent with the desires of the majority of their constituents.”
This is an important point to keep in mind when thinking about who might be elected the next US president, and whether that individual will continue “the Obama policy” of allowing the states to determine their own marijuana policy, without interference from the federal government. With support for full legalization reaching nearly 60 percent nationwide, it will be difficult, and likely politically impossible, for the next president to change that policy, regardless of her/his personal views.
We have, after a long and sometimes frustrating public debate covering several decades, finally won the hearts and minds of a majority of the American public, and with that, the power to move marijuana legalization forward full speed, until it is the law of the land. We are now the majority.
It’s a wonderful time to be a marijuana smoker.