For the first time ever, there are more Americans that support the legalization of marijuana than those that want to keep the substance illegal. It’s a shift that represents a landmark moment in American society and marks a new low in the government’s war on drugs.
According to a brand new Gallup poll, 50 percent of Americans say that marijuana should be made legal in the United States. A minority of 46 percent believes that it should remain an illegal drug.
Surprisingly, even those that describe themselves as moderates or independents support legalization at nearly the same rate as registered Democrats or self-described liberals.
A number of factors have contributed to the rise in acceptance of marijuana as a legitimate substance on par with alcohol or cigarettes, including the increase in the number of states decriminalizing the drug or allowing it to be used for medicinal purposes, and the fact that more Americans than ever are using it.
Whatever the reason, the dynamic shift in Americans’ opinions about marijuana has been significant since the 1990′s. In less than 20 years, support for legalization has increased by 25 percentage points while support for the status quo of treating it as an illegal drug has slipped by an almost equal amount.
A record-high 50% of Americans now say the use of marijuana should be made legal, up from 46% last year. Forty-six percent say marijuana use should remain illegal.
When Gallup first asked about legalizing marijuana, in 1969, 12% of Americans favored it, while 84% were opposed. Support remained in the mid-20s in Gallup measures from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, but has crept up since, passing 30% in 2000 and 40% in 2009 before reaching the 50% level in this year’s Oct. 6-9 annual Crime survey.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Marijuana is the most commonly abused illicit drug in the United States.” The National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2009 found that “16.7 million Americans aged 12 or older used marijuana at least once in the month prior to being surveyed, an increase over the rates reported in all years between 2002 and 2008.”
The advocacy group National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws claims that marijuana is the third-most-popular recreational drug in America, behind only alcohol and tobacco. Some states have decriminalized marijuana’s use, some have made it legal for medicinal use, and some officials, including former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, have called for legalizing its use.
A Gallup survey last year found that 70% favored making it legal for doctors to prescribe marijuana in order to reduce pain and suffering. Americans have consistently been more likely to favor the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes than to favor its legalization generally.
Ironically, this historic shift in public opinion on marijuana comes as the presidential administration initially seen as especially lenient towards use of the drug changes its policy and ushers in an unprecedented crackdown on medical marijuana use and production.
President Obama and the Justice Department have launched a new federal push to target medical marijuana producers and distributors in California, a state where possession of marijuana for medicinal use is legal. The crackdown is actually in response to an initial order from the Justice Department shortly after the president took office that said the government would expressly avoid enforcement of medical marijuana users and “caregivers” in states where it is legal.
Conservative lawmakers have stridently opposed this policy, and the administration has taken action in the wake of a purported boom in medical marijuana operations and users following the DOJ’s earlier directive against enforcement. Activists are outraged, saying the thew president “has been incredibly disappointing.”
Federal prosecutors in California are threatening to shut down medical marijuana dispensaries throughout the state, sending letters to warn landlords to stop sales of the drug within 45 days or face the possibility that their property will be seized and they will be sent to prison.
The stepped-up enforcement appears to be a major escalation in the Obama administration’s bid to rein in the explosive spread of medical marijuana outlets that was accelerated by the announcement that federal prosecutors would not target people using medical marijuana in states that allow it.
“It’s basically the federal bureaucracy doing what it has done for the last 15 years and just continuing to put its head in the sand and saying no on this,” said Dale Gieringer, the director of California NORML.
The four U.S. attorneys have scheduled a news conference for Friday morning in Sacramento to outline their plans to target marijuana cultivation and sales in California. Earlier this year, the prosecutors circulated an internal memo that indicated they would focus enforcement efforts on dispensaries and growers that dealt with more than 200 kilograms or a 1,000 plants a year.
As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama said the federal government should not raid medical marijuana users and caregivers. Three months after Obama was inaugurated, his attorney general announced that it would be the administration’s official policy. Although California was the first state to decriminalize marijuana for medical use in 1996, it remains a federal crime to possess or sell it.
Recently, the administration and some of its federal prosecutors have drawn strict limits on what they would tolerate. When Oakland and Berkeley began to make plans to allow industrial-scale cultivation, the U.S. attorney for the Bay Area made it that clear she would not allow it, leading those cities to shelve ambitious plans motivated by the desire for tighter regulatory control and increased tax revenues.
The latest letters have baffled the state’s medical marijuana activists, who believe the president has broken his word. “Obama says, ‘Yes.’ The conservatives say, ‘No.’ So they get together and huddle and they settle on no,” said William G. Panzer, an Oakland lawyer who helped draft the state’s medical marijuana initiative. “The Obama administration has been incredibly disappointing on this issue.”
While the federal government bucks public opinion and launches a major anti-marijuana offensive in California, the California Medical Association marked another historic occasion by becoming the first state medical association to adopt “official policy recommending the legalization and regulation of cannabis.” The medical group noted the discrepancy between California state law, which legalizes medical marijuana use and research, and the federal law that is leading to the Obama administration’s new crackdown.
Despite President Obama’s shift in official policy regarding medical marijuana, that issue and the larger discussion of marijuana legalization and public support for it has not become a factor in the 2012 presidential campaign. While potential Republican rivals of the president have not been shy about criticizing all aspects of Obama’s agenda and policies, most GOP candidates have made no mention about drug policy or the record public backing for marijuana decriminalization.
The one exception to this has been Gary Johnson, former New Mexico governor and a struggling candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. Held out of recent televised GOP debate ostensibly because of poor poll numbers, Johnson has made some headlines for his open embrace of marijuana use as well as his push to end the federal war on drugs and decriminalize marijuana.
Johnson pushed for marijuana legalization while governor in New Mexico and has famously called marijuana users the “largest untapped voting bloc” in American politics.
The significance of the Gallup poll showing half of the country in support of legalization was not lost on Johnson, who questioned the “political leadership” in America for failing to reflect this “common sense belief.”
Republican presidential candidate Gary Johnson is baffled that more politicians don’t support legalizing marijuana, after a new Gallup poll shows that an all-time high of 50 percent of Americans favor legalization.
“Where is the political leadership that should be reflecting that common sense belief?” said the former New Mexico governor in a statement on Tuesday
“This may be the only issue on the national scene where half the American people support something, but zero percent, statistically speaking, of elected officials and politicians will publicly agree with them,” he added. “Yet, for the most part, there are no politicians who will speak that truth, much less act upon it. With 50% of Americans open to the idea of legalization, why won’t the ruling class at least let us have the conversation?”
The most powerful argument on behalf of marijuana legalization has become one of basic economics. In the depths of budget crises at the local, state and federal level, Americans are increasingly open to new ideas that would raise revenue and trim wasteful government spending.
While many lawmakers say the only way to do this is to cut government jobs and government programs, legalization and decriminalization would be a more significant and long-term financial boost in the middle of a stagnant economy — and 50 percent of Americans agree.
Thr numbers are staggering. Research collected by CNN/Money a few years ago provides an eye-opening breakdown of potential state tax revenues from nationwide marijuana legalization and regulation. Literally hundreds of millions of dollars in possible revenue would be at stake.
An even more staggering number is $13.7 billion, the amount of money that could potentially be saved by states and the federal government if marijuana were legalized. Even more significant than added tax revenues would be the cost savings in law enforcement, prison expense and court systems.
State and federal budgets for drug enforcement have soared in recent years, a rise that is tougher to justify as government moves towards leaner budgets.
The war on drugs has always been expensive and its effectiveness debatable, but in the current budget-crunch environment, it’s more of a target than ever.
In the 2010 edition of “The Budgetary Implications of Drug Prohibition,” Jeffrey Miron, director of undergraduate studies at Harvard University, estimates that legalizing marijuana would save $13.7 billion per year in government expenditure on enforcement of prohibition.
“Legalization eliminates arrests for trafficking and possession,” Miron says. “Second, legalization saves judicial and incarceration expenses. Third, legalization allows taxation of drug production and sale.”
Miron estimates that eight states each spend more than $1 billion annually enforcing marijuana laws: New York, $3 billion; Texas, $2 billion; California, Florida, $1.9 billion; Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, $1 billion.
Arizona—another border state—spends $726 million, while Colorado spends $145 million. North Dakota spends the least—$45 million a year—reflecting both its location and population density.
The budget for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration has increased 40-fold since its inception in 1973, from $65 million (and 2,800 employees) to $2.6 billion (11,000) in 2009.