After voters in Washington and Colorado voted to legalize marijuana in 2012, Alison Holcomb would tell pot activists it was too early to say that the rest of America was ready to accept the drug.
Holcomb, an American Civil Liberties Union official who managed Washington’s legalization campaign, recalled that nearly a dozen states – including Oregon – decriminalized possession of small amounts of the drug in the 1970s.
“And then the ’80s came and the pendulum swung back hard,” she said, as President Ronald Reagan called marijuana “probably the most dangerous drug in America” and stepped up federal enforcement against all illegal drugs.
Holcomb now feels more confident that marijuana will be widely legal after watching Oregon and Alaska voters approve the possession and retail sales.
Legalization in two more states — in a non-presidential year when fewer younger people vote – marks an important milestone in the drive to sweep away criminal penalties against a drug routinely used by millions of Americans, Holcomb and other activists say. On top of that, in Washington, D.C., voters said adults should be able to grow and possess the drug.
“A decade or a generation from now, people will look back on the marijuana wars and say, ‘What the hell was that about,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, the group that primarily funded Oregon’s marijuana initiative.
Not everyone agrees that marijuana is on its way to the mainstream.
Kevin Sabet, a former White House drug official and prominent national opponent of legalization, said supporters so far had an overwhelming financial advantage and that “the country is not ready to fully embrace legalization.”
Regardless, the growing strength of the movement to legalize marijuana represents a sea change for a drug that first became prominent as a symbol of the 1960s counterculture.
Portland Congressman Earl Blumenauer has probably been voting on marijuana issues longer than any politician in America.
As a 24-year-old state representative in 1973, Blumenauer supported Oregon’s first-in-the-nation law to punish possession of up to one ounce with a citation comparable to a traffic ticket.
Oregon’s marijuana timeline
Ten states followed and President Jimmy Carter in 1977 urged Congress to eliminate federal penalties for possessing small amounts of pot.
“We can, and should, continue to discourage the use of marijuana, but this can be done without defining the smoker as a criminal,” said Carter. “States which have already removed criminal penalties for marijuana use, like Oregon and California, have not noted any significant increase in marijuana smoking.”
Blumenauer thought the country was well on the way toward ending criminal sanctions.
But Reagan, running as the champion of traditional values, turned that around.
“Marijuana, pot, grass, whatever you want to call it, is probably the most dangerous drug in the United States,” Reagan proclaimed at one campaign stop, “and we haven’t begun to find out all of the ill effects.”
After he was elected in 1980, first lady Nancy Reagan led a “Just Say No” approach to drugs and championed toughened laws. For Ronald Reagan, accustomed to using anti-war protesters, dissident college students and the hippie movement as foils, the move made political sense.
“Reagan campaigned against the counterculture,” Blumenauer said, noting that his anti-drug push came when crime rates were rising and “people didn’t want to be seen as soft on crime.”
During the Reagan administration, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates started a national group, Drug Abuse Resistance Education – DARE – that had officers visit schools to encourage students to pledge to avoid drugs.
Proponents said youth use of marijuana fell during the 1980s, proving the value of the “Just Say No” approach.
But the war on drugs also contributed to an explosive increase in the prison population, leading critics to complain that the focus should be on drug treatment and not incarceration.
At the same time, more activists argued that marijuana was effective in treating such diseases as glaucoma and in easing the pain and nausea of cancer treatments.
Marijuana use became common among AIDS patients, helping to lead to passage of the nation’s first medical marijuana law, in California in 1996.
“That’s where you began to have a different conversation about marijuana,” said Nadelmann, adding that it “helped shift the imagery of a marijuana user” from that of a clueless stoner to a gaunt cancer patient.
Oregon, Washington and Alaska followed two years later; 23 states now have medical marijuana laws.
Critics and supporters of medical marijuana argue over whether those laws are to blame for an increase in under-age use of the drug, with dueling studies drawing opposite conclusions.
At the same time, the millennials – the children of the baby boomers who first grappled with marijuana – entered adulthood with a casual acceptance of the drug, even though surveys showed that most were not regular users.
Nationally, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health said last year that nearly 20 million people 12 and older, or about 7.5 percentof the population, used marijuana in the last month.
In Oregon, estimates prepared by the Legislative Revenue Office to study the tax impact of legalization, said around 300,000 adults used marijuana in the last month. Another 67,000 have medical marijuana cards.
Just as happened with gay marriage, the millennials provided the strongest force in polls that show rising support for marijuana over the last two decades.
Yet while Americans increasingly came to see marriage equality as a moral right, most didn’t put marijuana in those terms, according to an analysis of public opinion by William Galston and E.J. Dionne Jr. of the Brookings Institution.
“A significant minority favor legalization, not because they think that smoking marijuana is an affirmative good,” the two wrote in 2013, “but because they doubt the ability of law to enforce a prohibition against it.”
The issue also cut across party lines, with many conservatives saying it was a states’ rights issue, or even that it wasn’t up to government to tell someone what they could put in their own body. And many respondents say they were soft in their support for legalization.
Still, Gallup found support for legalizing marijuana outpacing opposition around 2010, just when activists put a legalization measure on the California ballot.
The measure failed by seven percentage points, but just the possibility it could pass in the nation’s most populous state attracted copious media coverage and widespread discussion.
Now, after four states have legalized the drug, activists plan to return the issue to the California ballot in 2016. And they reel off other states where they expect to push for legalization soon.
Galston, the Brookings scholar and former aide to President Bill Clinton, said he thinks a patchwork of mostly blue states will legalize marijuana as part of a “long national conversation” about the drug.
Blumenauer predicted that marijuana will become a serious issue in the 2016 presidential race, with candidates asked where they stand on issues ranging from whether they support legalization to whether they back the Obama administration’s decision to let states allow retail sales.
Sabet, the legalization critic, noted that Gallup on Thursday published a poll finding that majority support for legalization dropped from 58 percent to 51 percent in the past year.
That could signal that Americans aren’t happy with the growing marijuana industry they’re seeing in Colorado and Washington, he said.
The industry is “taking their cues from Big Tobacco,” Sabet said in an email, “downplay the risks, encourage heavy use [and] start ’em young.”
Legalization supporters scoff at those claims, arguing that regulating marijuana gives authorities more tools to combat under-age use. Also, some other pollsters did not find a drop in support for legalization.
“Anbyody who is afraid that marijuana is going to be a big business has their head in the sand,” said Blumenauer, “because it’s big business now…It’s just that it is in the shadows, or worse.”
— Jeff Mapes
–Graphics by Mark Graves