The Marijuana Legalization Movement Goes Mainstream

In 1932 Franklin D. Roosevelt, Democratic candidate for president, pledged to support repeal of the 18th Amendment – Prohibition – if elected. FDR’s support for repeal helped solidify an emerging political consensus that Prohibition had been a colossal failure. In February 1933, two weeks before FDR’s inauguration, Congress approved the 21st Amendment repealing Prohibition, and by December 1933 it had been ratified by 3/4 of the states.

Of course, the 1930s saw the beginning of another form of prohibition – that of marijuana – that has intensified over the subsequent decades. A 2005 Harvard study found that marijuana prohibition costs the state of California about $981 million a year – and that’s just in terms of police, court and prison costs. Tom Ammiano’s bill to legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana, AB 390, is estimated to generate $1 billion in tax revenue – which would add at least $2 billion to the general fund at a time when it is desperately needed.

Carla Marinucci took a look in today’s Chronicle at the reasons for the increased support for ending marijuana prohibition and concludes it’s a mixture of budgetary crisis and public desire to end the silly ban on bud:

Among them: the recession-fueled need for more public revenue, increased calls to redirect scarce law enforcement, court and prison resources, and a growing desire to declaw powerful and violent Mexican drug cartels. Also in the mix is a public opinion shift driven by a generation of Baby Boomers, combined with some new high-profile calls for legislation – including some well-known conservative voices joining with liberals.

Leading conservatives like former Secretary of State George Shultz and the late economist Milton Friedman years ago called for legalization and a change in the strategy in the war on drugs. This year mainstream pundits like Fox News’ Glenn Beck and CNN’s Jack Cafferty have publicly questioned the billions spent each year fighting the endless war against drugs and to suggest it now makes more financial and social sense to tax and regulate marijuana.

As you can tell Marinucci’s article suffers from a bit too much of the “it’s not valid until Republicans and Broderists support it” school of journalism. And as Nate Silver pointed out last week, it’s not just Baby Boomers who are driving this:

The key feature of this distribution is how rapidly lifetime usage rates decline after about age 55 or so. About half of 55-year-olds have used marijuana at some point in their lives, but only about 20 percent of 65-year-olds have.

There is not, of course, a one-to-one correspondence between having used marijuana and supporting its legalization; one can plausibly support its legalization without having ever inhaled, or vice versa. Nevertheless, I would venture that the correlation is fairly strong, and polls have generally found a fairly strong generation gap when it comes to pot legalization. As members of the Silent Generation are replaced in the electorate by younger voters, who are more likely to have either smoked marijuana themselves or been around those that have, support for legalization is likely to continue to gain momentum.

I don’t always agree with Silver, but here he seems on more solid ground. Voters above age 60 are much less likely to support legalization than any other age group, and some of the strongest support comes from voters under 40.

Marinucci quotes Alex Evans, director of EMC Research, whose annual poll on legalization for Oaksterdam University indicated majority support here in California for ending marijuana prohibition:

A new California poll by Oakland EMC Research specifically tracked state voters’ attitudes on marijuana use, taxation and legalization.

Alex Evans, president and founder of EMC, said his firm has done the same study for years for Oaksterdam University, an Oakland medical marijuana dispensary and education group, but 2009 marks the first time the poll showed that a clear majority of state voters, 54 percent, say the drug should be legalized, compared with 39 percent opposed. (The poll of 551 likely voters was taken March 16-21 and has a margin of error of 4.2 percentage points.)

The poll doesn’t seem to have broken out responses by age, as the Field Poll typically would, but it does seem indicative of growing public support for ending our failed prohibition policy on marijuana.

That policy and its fiscal impact in particular should serve to remind us that California’s budget deficit is a deliberate choice. If we didn’t want to give massive tax breaks to the wealthy and to big business, if we didn’t want to save money by abandoning the totally failed policies of law and order of the last 30 years, and if we didn’t want to appease the right and leave the conservative veto in place, perhaps California could actually have the kind of robust public services that are necessary for broadly shared economic security.

Or we could just keep on going as we have been. Our choice.

3 thoughts on “The Marijuana Legalization Movement Goes Mainstream”

  1. It is impossible for me to imagine 41 Assemblymember and 21 Senators having the courage to make marijuana legal.  It would rip apart the drug cartels, empty our prisons and increase our revenues.  And the initiative that would make it legal will probably overreach.

    So, this should happen, but I’m not holding my breath.

  2. WaPo was all over this over the weekend, I wrote about it yesterday.

    Living in San Diego, I’m actually surprised that legislators haven’t been framing this as more of a violence and security issue since trigger men are being recruited in San Diego, cartel leaders are being assassinated here, and locals have more or less accepted that crossing the border- even for the afternoon- bears legitimate risk of being robbed, shot, kidnapped, raped or killed.

    There’s probably an interesting angle in there about how the violence bubbling over the border fits in with isolationist immigration policy, but that’s a lot more than a comment.

  3. That’s how we legalized medical marijuana. Now let’s completely legalize weed, I’m not sure of the process for a getting a referendum on the ballot, but if more than 50% of Californians support legalization, I’m sure we can get enough signatures in time for the 2010 midterms or at least 2012. And I’m sure it would pass. If California legalizes weed, that would really get the ball rolling for the legalization movement. Yes We Cannibis

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