Americans support marijuana legalization, but many of their political leaders do not.
By German Lopez
A decade ago, no American lived in a state where marijuana was legal to smoke, vape or eat recreationally. Today, nearly half of Americans do or will soon: Voters approved legalization ballot measures this month in Maryland and Missouri, bringing the number of states allowing any adult use to 21.
Legalization may not make major news often anymore, but it’s a big deal. It amounts to America’s largest change to its drug policy in decades. By aligning marijuana with alcohol and tobacco, rather than harder drugs, the policy change is giving birth to a new industry. And, over time, it could reduce the hundreds of thousands of marijuana arrests made in the U.S. every year, freeing up police resources.
The change came about largely because of the support of voters, not politicians or lawmakers. While the public backs legalization, some prominent political leaders do not: President Biden has said he’s opposed. Donald Trump has characterized legalization as an issue for states to decide, but his 2020 presidential campaign said marijuana should remain illegal.
A key reason for marijuana legalization’s success: It’s popular. About 68 percent of adults in the U.S. support legalization, a Gallup survey found last week. Even a majority of Republicans, who are typically more conservative on the issue, have told Gallup that they support legalization.
Around two decades ago, public opinion was essentially the reverse: About 64 percent of U.S. adults said marijuana should not be legal.
The shift toward support empowered legalization campaigns around the U.S. The 21 states that have legalized it have done so only since 2012, starting with Colorado and Washington. Three of those states reliably vote Republican: Alaska, Montana and Missouri.
Why have voters come around to legalization? Advocates credit several issues. Much of the public now sees the broader war on drugs as a costly failure — and marijuana, widely viewed as less dangerous than alcohol, is an accessible target for policy changes. States’ experiments with medical marijuana, starting in the 1990s, helped make Americans more comfortable with loosening access. And the internet has made it easier for a grass-roots legalization movement to spread.
Some leading lawmakers have not followed the shift in public opinion. Biden has said he opposes jailing marijuana users and pardoned thousands of people convicted of marijuana possession under federal law. But he also opposes legalization, putting him at odds with more than 80 percent of self-identified Democrats.
Lawmakers’ opposition has led activists to rely largely on voter support to enact legalization. Of the 21 states where recreational marijuana is or will soon be legal, 14 approved the change through ballot measures.
But there are limits to the ballot process. Not every state allows such initiatives. And the drug remains illegal at the federal level, stopping most big banks from working with marijuana businesses and raising the businesses’ tax bills.
Even in states where voters approve legalization, marijuana may remain illegal. South Dakotans voted to legalize marijuana in 2020, but Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, took the measure to court and won. This month, South Dakotan voters rejected another legalization initiative.
Some of the political resistance is easing. Congress passed its first stand-alone marijuana reform bill last week, which will allow for more research into medical uses if Biden signs it into law, as expected. Several state legislatures, including Vermont’s and Virginia’s, have legalized marijuana for recreational purposes. Some prominent Democrats, like Senator Bernie Sanders and the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, have voiced support for legalization.
The shift is coming slowly, but perhaps typically: Whether they are considering action on prescription drugs or same-sex marriage, lawmakers often move well after voter support for an issue has solidified.