One persistent myth I keep encountering in marijuana policy is the idea America was really “close” to legalizing marijuana in the late 70′s before there was a backlash. The rehashing of this myth was the one big problem in what was otherwise a good Washington Post article about the history of the legalization. From the Washington Post:
America has been at the edge of marijuana legalization several times during the past half-century, but never as close to mass acceptance of the drug as the nation is today. [...]
The skies looked bright for legalization at several other points in recent decades, and those efforts ultimately went nowhere, as campaigns by parents combined with sharp opposition by law enforcement and elected officials to keep marijuana on the list of substances that can land you in jail.
These lines, at best, are hyperbole, but it is understandable why this myth lives on. Activists by nature tend to be overly optimistic, journalists prefer a framing that makes a better story, and modern opponents don’t want their position to look unwinnable. Everyone involved has a reason to keep the myth going.
The problem is it doesn’t fit with the data. America is a democracy, however imperfect. Big change on social issues normally doesn’t come until there is super majority support since the American system has a heavy status quo bias. Until recently marijuana legalization never had anything close to that among the American people. Look at this graph from Pew:
Opinion was modestly moving in the right direction until around 1977 when a clear marijuana backlash emerged, but even at its peak in the 70′s support was only about 30 percent. That is still fringe territory. That is hardly on the “edge” of legalization.
Even if there had been zero backlash and the old trend continued uninterrupted, support for legalization probably wouldn’t have hit 51 percent until the 90′s. That might have been just enough to to get legalization adopted in a few states. After all, medical marijuana now has roughly 80 percent support nationally but has only spread to 20 states so far.
In the 70′s there was some real movement towards reducing marijuana possession penalties which tragically got interrupted by the War on Drugs, but decriminalization is not the same as legalization. Many countries and states have had decriminalized marijuana for decades without advancing to legalization.
This moment is nothing like any other point in the past half century.
Jon Walker is the author of After Legalization: Understanding the future of marijuana policy