U.S. sees profound cultural shift on marijuana legalization

Bob Leeds, owner of Sea of Green Farms, a recreational pot grower and processor in Seattle, inspects plants.
Bob Leeds, owner of Sea of Green Farms, a recreational pot grower and processor in Seattle, inspects plants.
(Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

More than a third of adults have smoked it — including the last three presidents. Dozens of songs and movies have been made about it.

Marijuana is no longer whispered about, nor hidden in back rooms and basements. It has come into the open in American life despite decades of prohibition and laws treating the drug as more dangerous than meth and cocaine.

When the New York Times’ editorial board called this weekend for the U.S. government to end its ban on weed — and let states decide how to regulate it — the newspaper reflected what a majority of Americans have told pollsters: Marijuana should be legal.


The status quo, according to advocates and even the president, has resulted in the disproportionate arrests of minorities and the poor.

“The social costs of the marijuana laws are vast,” the editorial said. “There were 658,000 arrests for marijuana possession in 2012, according to FBI figures, compared with 256,000 for cocaine, heroin and their derivatives. Even worse, the result is racist, falling disproportionately on young black men, ruining their lives and creating new generations of career criminals.”

These are not new arguments. But this time they come from the New York Times, not High Times.

Support for marijuana legalization has grown so rapidly within the last decade, and especially within the last two years, that some advocates and pollsters have compared it with the sudden collapse of opposition to same-sex marriage as a culture-redefining event.

Gallup has found more popular support for legalizing marijuana than for legalizing same-sex marriage.

In Gallup’s most recent survey on the issue, in 2013, 58% of respondents said marijuana should be legal — up from 46% a year earlier and 31% in the early 2000s. This spring, 55% said gay and lesbian couples should be able to marry.


When Colorado passed a ballot measure in 2012 legalizing recreational marijuana, more residents voted for legal weed than for President Obama (who carried the state). Washington state’s legalization effort also passed handily.

Yet through a combination of ballot measures, legislative action and judicial action, same-sex marriage has found far more success across the U.S., in a campaign supporters liken to the civil rights movement.

For marijuana, a better historical comparison is Prohibition — when alcohol was banned in the early 20th century. Public officials have moved more slowly on pot, in many cases taking incremental steps like decriminalizing possession of small amounts and legalizing the drug for medicinal use.

Taboos have slowly faded. Former President Clinton confessed to smoking marijuana but famously claimed that he “didn’t inhale.” George W. Bush told a friend in a recorded conversation that he didn’t want to answer questions about past marijuana use because “I don’t want some little kid doing what I tried.” Obama was bolder, declaring before he was elected, “Of course I inhaled — that was the point!”

In a New Yorker interview published in January, Obama said, “I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.” But he worried legalizing marijuana would create a slippery slope for legalizing more dangerous drugs.

The American Medical Assn., while calling for more clinical testing, has expressed skepticism that medicinal marijuana meets federal safety standards for prescriptions. The American Psychiatric Assn.’s most recent policy statement says, “There is no current scientific evidence that marijuana is in any way beneficial for the treatment of any psychiatric disorder.”


Dissenters also worry that creating a legal marijuana industry would simply be the next Big Tobacco, with legalization bringing higher rates of addiction and mental health problems.

“When you look back at Prohibition, what you see is that per-capita use of alcohol during Prohibition dropped more than 50%; as a result of that, alcohol-related deaths dropped considerably as well,” says Stuart Gitlow, president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine. “Prohibition was an enormous public health success.”

Even light marijuana use, Gitlow said, can harm brain function.

Gitlow added of tobacco: “We’ve gone over these past 30 to 40 years from about half the population smoking cigarettes to a much smaller figure.... Now the public wants to start that cycle again with a different drug they consider safer [when] the data aren’t all in. Why would we want to potentially start that disaster all over again?”

Colorado and Washington are de facto laboratories for legalization.

In Washington, where marijuana stores opened July 8, officials say it’s too early to draw many conclusions.

“There was a lot of concern that maybe it would end up being a three-ring circus, and we’d have people abusing it or overdosing on it,” Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said. “Those sorts of problems have not manifest themselves in relation to the few stores that are open.”

Alison Holcomb, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who drafted Initiative 502, which legalized marijuana in the state, said, “Things seem to be going very well in Washington.” For one thing, she said, the first 10 days of sales generated $318,000 in new tax revenue.


Holcomb added that in 2012, the year that I-502 passed, law enforcement officers made 5,531 marijuana-related arrests statewide. In 2013, that dropped to 120. She said it “would take a while” to evaluate whether full legalization affects use by young people.

Seattle City Atty. Pete Holmes was third in line when legal weed sales came to the city. On Sunday, he said the only way to get rid of the black market was for legal stores to succeed and the unregulated medical marijuana system to be folded into the well-regulated recreational system.

“Prohibition has failed to keep marijuana out of the hands of children,” Holmes said. “It has made criminals wealthy and promoted violence and kept us in the dark about what rational regulation would look like.”

Colorado, where legal sales began Jan. 1, has had some stumbles. Sheriffs in neighboring states (where pot remains illegal) have complained they are arresting more drivers coming from Colorado with marijuana.

Fourth-graders have faced discipline after allegedly selling their grandparents’ legally purchased pot to classmates. Some emergency rooms have reported treating children who accidentally ate edible marijuana. And two consumers may have had deadly reactions — including a 19-year-old college student who plunged from a Denver balcony to his death after eating a pot cookie. Also in Denver, a 47-year-old man was accused of shooting his wife to death after taking drugs and eating marijuana-infused candy.

“Colorado is proving that legalization in practice is a lot uglier than legalization in theory,” said Kevin Sabet, president of the policy group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, who opposes legalization, citing reports of increased calls to poison centers for marijuana overexposure.


“I’ve urged all the governors to go cautiously on this because I think there are risks that we’re only just beginning to understand,” Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said in June. “But this is going to be one of the great social experiments of the 21st century.”

Twitter: @mattdpearce