Pot Legalization Is Not the New Gay Marriage

AP Images/Ted S. Warren

On Tuesday afternoon, the Internet suddenly flowered with an abundance of pot jokes. The catalyst for this glut of stoner wit was a new poll from Gallup, showing that 58 percent of Americans favor marijuana legalization. It’s the highest level of support Gallup has seen since it started asking the question back in 1969, and confirms a trend that the Pew Research Center noted back in April, when it found that 52 percent of Americans believe marijuana should be legalized. Both polls show that Americans have had an extraordinary change of heart about weed in a very short period of time; just three years ago, support for marijuana legalization was hovering around 40 percent.

As Gallup notes, the trend line for marijuana looks a lot like the past 20 years of polling on same-sex marriage, which also reached majority support in the past few years. It’s no wonder that—since Gallup explicitly makes the connection between the two issues—others have picked up this theme. At the Monkey Cage, Joshua Tucker wonders whether pot is the new gay marriage, while Andrew Sullivan jubilantly declares that same-sex marriage and pot legalization are both winning their battles, which are fundamentally “about bringing outlaws into the civil mainstream.”

It’s undeniable that same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization are both enjoying a surge in momentum, buoyed by a string of state-level victories. New Jersey just became the fourteenth state to allow gay marriage, while last November, Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana for recreational use. Giddy from these victories, the Marijuana Policy Project recently announced its plans to legalize marijuana in ten more states by 2017.

But it’s silly to expect that public opinion on the two issues will progress in tandem. For the past decade, same-sex marriage advocates have been slowly chipping away at a deeply entrenched cultural—and partisan—issue. Legal pot is less polarizing than gay marriage. Although only around one-third of Republicans think marijuana should be legal, they don’t favor strong federal retribution against states that violate the law, either. This means that marijuana is unlikely to become a wedge issue; since even Pat Robertson thinks we should be regulating marijuana like alcohol, it’s hard to imagine that the shadow of “reefer madness” emerging as a potent social force anytime soon. This is good for marijuana advocates, in a sense—they can draw support from a broader, bipartisan base. But it will also be harder to bring their allies into a cohesive group.

Gay-marriage advocates’ progress has been gradual, and is likely to remain gradual. But there’s also little risk for trend-reversing fallout after same-sex marriage is legalized. The battle is over when advocates convince Americans to change their minds about whether gay couples should be included in a pre-existing social institution.

The fight for marijuana legalization is more volatile. Gallup speculates that because more Americans are copping to having tried marijuana, there’s wider social acceptance for the drug, but it’s likelier that causation is going the other way; if more people are admitting they’ve inhaled, it’s because they have a sense that the cultural zeitgeist is moving in marijuana’s favor. (It’s also worth noting that it’s notoriously difficult to get a straight answer out of people about their extralegal activities, especially in a phone interview.) But if something as simple as legalization in two states could shift Americans’ perspectives so dramatically, a highly publicized misstep in either state could surely do the same. Possession of marijuana may be legal in Colorado and Washington, but pot hasn’t gone on sale in either state yet. The substance of the laws matters a lot; as Mark Kleiman notes at the Reality Based Community, “If the question of whether to legalize now seems largely settled, that makes the much-less-debated question of how to legalize even more topical.” Colorado and Washington are experimenting with an entirely new set of laws, legalizing and regulating a drug that is not only illegal under federal law, but still classified as one of the most dangerous substances around. With marijuana legalization, the proof is in the pudding. After advocates convince Americans that marijuana should be legal, their laws need to work, or they risk disappointing the new converts to their cause.

Both movements talk a lot about freedom: the freedom to marry, the freedom to smoke a relatively harmless plant in the comfort of your home. But the case for same-sex marriage is less ambiguous; if you have a gay friend or family member, it’s hard to imagine why they shouldn’t be allowed to shape their lives using the same building blocks that heterosexual couples have relied on for centuries. In a Brookings report about the new politics of marijuana legalization from last May, William Galston and EJ Dionne point out that it’s easier to stay ambivalent about marijuana—unlike same-sex marriage, which is increasingly being accepted as a neglected civil right. There are certainly ways that legalizing marijuana could promote equality—even though black people aren’t more likely than white people to use marijuana, they’re nearly four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession—but it’s harder to argue that the right to smoke small amounts of marijuana is as profound as the right to marriage. Even among its newfound supporters, marijuana use itself is not necessarily seen as a positive good. Galston and Dionne write:

"Those who end up supporting legalization on ballot measures often do so despite their doubts about marijuana. They come to support making its use legal for a variety of secondary reasons: that enforcement of marijuana constitutes a waste of public resources; that taxing legalized marijuana might provide a new source of public revenue; that enforcement of existing laws is spotty and unfair. Over the long run, Americans with ambivalent views on the question will be shaped by whether the various experiments with legalization…and the use of marijuana for medical purposes are deemed successes or failures."

Americans’ desire for better drug policy—which the polling shows clearly—is balanced by a wide range of concerns about the potential harms that marijuana legalization could cause. As Kleiman puts it, “‘Less harmful than alcohol’ and ‘not harmful to most of its users’ do not add up to ‘harmless.’ Adolescents spin out on cannabis and wreck their academic careers. People of all ages do stupid things while stoned, including driving their cars into trees and other cars.”

On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that if Colorado and Washington’s new regulatory systems are implemented without a hitch, support for marijuana legalization could accelerate even faster. We won’t know how the two states’ experiments are faring until legal marijuana retail stores open across Colorado in the first months of 2014. Washington’s stores are on track to begin selling legal weed in June. The pro-pot movement’s gains are undeniably impressive—they’re just on a shakier foundation than the gay-marriage movement’s slower but steadier, advances. It’s hard to imagine that the tide will retreat for same-sex marriage. But for marijuana? Let’s look at the polling again after pot goes on sale in Washington and Colorado.

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