With the Supreme Court now at least considering a definitive statement in favor of gay marriage and support for marriage equality now practically a litmus test issue for Democratic politicians, Americans across the political spectrum are expressing surprise at how rapidly this once marginalized idea became something like a national consensus. Though equality remains law in fewer than a dozen states and no one is holding their breath to get gay married in Alabama or Arkansas, everybody gets that the debate is largely over. Even archconservative thought leader Rush Limbaugh has admitted it’s only a matter of time. But if you were surprised at how quickly marriage equality happened, get ready for another shock: pot’s going to be legal too. The same demographic and cultural changes that propelled marriage equality to majority status are already pushing support for legal pot to the same place.
TPM analyzed all available, nationwide polling data on the questions of full marijuana legalization and marriage equality for the past 18 years and found public opinion on the two issues has taken a nearly identical trajectory. In the mid-1990’s, average public support and opposition for both marriage equality and marijuana legalization was at fairly similar levels. In 1995, 25 percent of those polled supported marijuana legalization while 73 percent opposed it. One year later, 27 percent of people polled backed marriage equality while 68 percent were against it. Over the next decade and change support for both marriage equality and marijuana legalization grew to similar levels. Currently, an average of 50.6 percent of people polled this year support gay marriage and 42.6 percent oppose it. The most recent polling on marijuana legalization is from last year and shows average support at 48.5 percent and average opposition at 48 percent.
Though marijuana legalization is slightly behind marriage equality in terms of public opinion, it has enjoyed a steadier climb along the way to earning the support of nearly half the country. As the accompanying chart shows, backing and opposition to marriage equality has undergone some dramatic dips and peaks over the last seventeen years. On the other hand, support for marijuana legalization has simply moved, pardon the pun, higher and higher each year. This could be an indication marijuana legalization may enjoy an even smoother ride to ultimate approval than marriage equality.
TPM spoke with activists working on both issues and they identified several reasons marijuana legalization may have a less bumpy road along the way to earning nationwide support. Erik Altieri, a spokesman for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a pro-marijuana lobbying group, said a major factor behind this may be legalizations natural appeal among some conservatives and libertarians who see it as a civil liberties issue.
“I think our arguments have done a little bit of a better job in appeal to financial conservatives and libertarians in a way that gay marriage hasn’t,” Altieri said. “Marijuana legalization fits into almost any ideology you can think of. That’s why you see these odd bedfellows supporting it, you know, Barney Frank and Ron Paul. It’s not a wedge issue anymore.”
A consultant who has worked on the national pro-marriage equality campaign agreed marijuana legalization has natural appeal to conservatives. They also pointed out marriage equality has entrenched opposition among religious, social conservatives — something pot legalization lacks.
“The argument for legalization has really been sort of couched in medical usage. You still have to sell marriage. Not everyone knows a gay person or a gay person who wants to marry their same-sex partner. Everyone knows someone who smokes weed,” the consultant said. “There’s not sort of a cultural bridge that you need to cross. Unless they’re under the age of 45, or even really 30, there is still going to be a social conservative bloc that is extremely hard to move [on marriage equality]. … An herbal, medicinal remedy would not have been frowned upon in the biblical times, so if you’re going to root everything in the Bible, that is not mentioned. … Sex of all kinds is a traditional vice.”
In theory, support for pot legalization could stall at the current 50/50 split. But one key trend, the same driving the seemingly inexorable rise of support for gay marriage, makes that outcome highly unlikely. Young people overwhelmingly support legalization. And diehard opposition is heavily concentrated among older voters.
“The only group left that doesnt support marijuana legalization by about 50 percent is the elderly,” explained Altieri.
Along with its more uninterrupted upward trajectory, growth in support for marijuana legalization is also starting to move at a much faster rate than even the rising support for marriage equality. All of the publicity surrounding the legal battles and marriage equality initiatives that passed last November could lead support to begin climbing again, but thus far that doesn’t seem to have happened. Though a poll from ABC News and the Washington Post last month showed support for gay marriage spiking to an eye-popping 58 percent, it seems to be an outlier and, including 2013, the average percentage of people expressing support for marriage equality in polls has virtually plateaued in the past four years. However, on the marijuana legalization front there does seem to be a pronounced spike in growth of supporters. Between 2009 and 2012 support for marijuana legalization grew at nearly twice the rate it had at any time since 1995. Altieri attributes this rapid increase to the economic crisis.
“What I would really pinpoint as the source of this last four year nudge up where we jumped up 10 points is the economy,” Altieri said. “People always knew we shouldn’t be giving such harsh punishments to those arrested for marijuana offenses and spending hundreds of millions of dollars to put them in jail. It became much more imperative when we had the financial crisis and then we’re seeing the debt ceiling.”
While marijuana legalization isn’t currently before the Supreme Court, it has made substantial recent strides on the state legislative level. On Election Day last November, voters in Colorado and Washington made those states the first to legalize the production and sale of marijuana for recreational, not medicinal use. This year, there is a bumper crop of marijuana reform proposals growing at both the state and federal level.
“As we’ve often taken to saying here at NORML, elections have consequences. And since November, when Washington and Colorado made it legal for people over 21 to use marijuana, we’ve seen an explosion,” said Altieri. “This year, there are 10 measures at the state level to legalize outright. In previous years, we would have been lucky to even have one. In two dozen states there are forty or so marijuana reform bills in play ranging from simple decriminalization, to medicalization and full-on legalization. Where we’re also seeing the movement is on the federal level where we haven’t previously. There are six to seven federal marijuana bills in Congress and they span the scope like we haven’t seen before including a call for a presidential commission to look at medical marijuana and Jared Polis’ legislation to remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, which would essentially end the federal government’s involvement in marijuana prohibition.”
Though the percentage of Americans backing marijuana legalization seems to be on track to catch up and potentially even pass the number who support gay marriage, there’s one thing the pro-pot movement doesn’t have that the marriage equality crowd now does. While President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and a growing crowd of the most high-level national politicians has jumped on the bandwagon of marriage equality backers, the marijuana legalization movement hasn’t had a similar infusion of political star power.
In fact, it’s still pretty hard to find any member of Congress or candidate for president who’s endorsed outright legalization.
“What you see on the marriage equality side is the power that comes when you get some influential people behind this. They’ve had the benefit of Barack Obama in the past year or so just using the bully pulpit on that issue,” said Altieri. “What we’re kind of waiting for here is that kind of moment to happen.”
When voters in Washington and Colorado legalized marijuana late last year, Altieri believes they made it more likely more high-ranking politicians will throw their support behind marijuana legalization. As an example, he pointed to a trio of fairly high-profile, hard on crime officials who are currently backing marijuana decriminalization legislation in New York—Governor Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly.
“More politicians are going to come aboard as they are realizing that this is no longer a political third rail, that this is a political opportunity for them. They’re self interested creatures at heart, so that’s what theyre paying attention too,” Altieri said. “When Colorado and Washington did what they did, it took the issue to a new level of legitimacy that we’d never seen. This was no longer something that people could make snide comments about on cable news.”
Washington and Colorado’s legalization law also set the stage for a pivotal moment where Attorney General Eric Holder will decide whether to intervene in those states and arrest those involved in the (still federally illegal) marijuana trade. Altieri believes more state-level marijuana proposals will appear if Holder and the White House show they won’t punish people in states that adopt new marijuana laws.
“We’re still waiting for Eric Holder’s announcement for what the federal law will be on those two states and that could be the linchpin,” said Altieri. ”As long as there’s a giant question mark for a state to consider passing this and potentially putting state employees on the line they might see it as a bit hasty.”
So far, Holder has hardly shown signs of being pro-marijuana legalization. Though President Barack Obama promised to respect state marijuana laws during his first White House run Holder’s Justice Department has cracked down on medical dispensaries in recent years. However, NORML believes the continually mounting public support for legalization could reach a tipping point that pushes Washington to act.
“History has shown that, once you hit 60 percent on an issue in this country, it gets really hard to go against it,” he said.
At the average rate support for legalization has grown since 1995, public opinion will hit that magic 60 percent threshold by 2022. But based on the rate backing for legalization has grown between 2009 and 2012, we could see public support for the issue reach that number bey 2019.