State Watch

On The Trail: How marijuana went mainstream

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Nine years ago, voters in Colorado and Washington became the first to approve recreational marijuana, over the objections of top Democrats in those states.

This week, legislators in Democratic-led New York and New Mexico struck deals that will make them the 16th and 17th states to legalize pot. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) even went so far as to call New Mexico’s legislature back into special session to pass the measures this year before she faces voters in her 2022 bid for a second term.

Supporters of legalized recreational marijuana once found it impossible to win support from a legislator willing to stake their career on legalized drug use. Now, measures that were once untouchable are winning bipartisan support.

In a polarized nation, there are few issues on which both the public and their elected leaders have shifted as much as on the question of recreational marijuana. As recently as the Clinton administration, only a quarter of voters backed legal marijuana. Today, more than two-thirds do.

Pollsters say the sea change has been driven by a generational shift in the electorate, as older Americans who grew up before the 1960s and lived through the war on drugs become a shrinking part of the voting base. The baby boom generation does not view marijuana use as harshly as their parents, and millennials and younger generations grew up in a time when marijuana was used for medical reasons.

“Millennials have consistently been far more supportive of legalization than older generations, especially the oldest generation,” said Carroll Doherty, director of political research at the Pew Research Center.

Support for recreational marijuana use still breaks along party lines, but less so than on other culture war issues. While 4 in 5 voters who identify as Democrats support legal marijuana, so do 48 percent of Republicans and 49 percent of self-identified conservatives, according to Gallup’s annual survey. Seventy percent of voters say smoking marijuana is morally acceptable, higher than the percentage who say the same about same-sex relationships or medical research involving stem cells.

Ann Selzer, a pollster who conducts surveys for the Des Moines Register and Grinnell College, credited the shift in public opinion to the increasing prevalence of medical marijuana and the absence of widespread crime driven by broader pot use. Medical marijuana is legal in all but two states, Idaho and Nebraska.

“The way to approval of recreational marijuana was paved by medical marijuana. The drug could be safe, so any hint of ‘reefer madness’ could be set aside,” Selzer said. “The people who grew up where pot was common are now grandparents. So there is more cultural agreement, maybe, that pot is not all that bad — what’s the big deal?”

Selzer’s latest poll of Iowa voters showed 54 percent backing recreational marijuana, almost double the 29 percent in 2013. Recent polls show two-thirds of voters in Louisiana, New York, Maryland and Connecticut, and almost 60 percent of voters in Florida, support legalization.

Pollsters compared the dramatic shift in popular opinion to the earlier debate around same-sex marriage. Voters are far more likely to say they support same-sex marriage today than they were a decade ago, before several states allowed couples to marry and before the Supreme Court ruled bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Attitudes shifted dramatically in favor of same-sex marriage when it became evident that life would continue apace, with no substantial disruption.

In a 2015 Pew poll, Doherty found those who changed their mind on recreational marijuana were most likely to cite medicinal benefits and their own observation that legalization had not led to an apocalypse.

“In the old days, if you told your doctor you smoked pot, you received a scowl,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Massachusetts. “Now, it is a shoulder shrug, as long as it is done in moderation.”

Among politicians, a shift in thinking has occurred for altogether more tangible reasons: States dealing with stretched budgets and limited resources see the potential for millions more dollars in tax revenue. Every state that has legalized marijuana for recreational use thus far has exceeded revenue expectations in the space of just a few years.

There is a regional incentive to legalize marijuana as well. Legal sales in Massachusetts and New Jersey attract New Yorkers, until they can purchase pot in their home state. Residents of New Mexico will soon be able to spend their money at a marijuana shop down the street, instead of in neighboring Arizona or Colorado.

Marijuana reform is likely to make an appearance on Capitol Hill in the current Congress, though its prospects are not yet clear. The House passed a legalization measure last year, but the Republican-controlled Senate did not take it up.

In January, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) reiterated his support for ending the federal prohibition on marijuana. Last month, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said he would reintroduce last year’s House-passed measure.

After New York and New Mexico finalize their regulatory schemes, 163 members of the House will represent states where recreational marijuana is legal.

Despite the seismic shift in public opinion, there is one prominent politician whose mind has not changed: President Biden. Biden backs decriminalizing marijuana, though the White House reiterated this week that he does not favor legalization.

“He believes in decriminalizing the use of marijuana,” press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters this week. “But his position has not changed.”

Many Democrats, however, have changed their position. Sen. John Hickenlooper, who opposed Colorado’s legalization push when he was governor, now supports removing marijuana from the federal list of Schedule I drugs.

In Washington state, former Gov. Jay Inslee (D), who opposed the successful legalization push in 2012, has since come around on the issue.

During a 2018 interview with BuzzFeed News, as he contemplated his eventual White House bid, Inslee said Washington state had “the best weed in America.”

“I may not smoke it, but I do grow it legally,” Inslee said.

A spokesperson later clarified that Inslee does not, in fact, grow marijuana.


On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on elections.

Tags Charles Schumer Colorado Drugs Jay Inslee Jen Psaki Jerry Nadler Joe Biden John Hickenlooper legalization Marijuana Michelle Lujan Grisham New York

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