News & Politics

Most Americans Want Legal Pot -- Why Is the Government Cracking Down More Than Ever?

With support for marijuana law reform growing in every demographic, politicians should no longer consider it a political liability. Unfortunately, Obama still does.

An earlier version of this article first appeared online in The Hill.

More Americans now support the notion of legalizing marijuana than oppose it. That was the conclusion of a new nationwide Gallup poll, released on Monday.

While the result may come as a surprise to some, it shouldn’t. The public’s growing support for marijuana law reform has been constant and consistent. Says the polling firm: “When Gallup first asked about legalizing marijuana, in 1969, 12 percent of Americans favored it.  … Support remained in the mid-20s … from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, but has crept up since, passing 30 percent in 2000 and 40 percent in 2009 before reaching the 50 percent level in this year's … survey.”

In fact, since 2005, public support for legalizing cannabis has grown among every single demographic polled. That’s right, today a greater percentage of Americans of every age, political ideology, and from every region of the country back marijuana law reform than did just six years ago. 

Among the startling statistics:

* Fifty-four percent of mid-western voters now support legalizing marijuana, up 22 percent from 2005.  On the west coast, 55 percent of respondents back reform, an increase of 15 percent.

* Sixty-two percent of those aged 18 to 29 and 56 percent of those aged 30 to 49 endorse legalization, a jump of 23 percent and 17 percent respectively.

* Among both Democrat and Independent voters, 57 percent favor legalizing cannabis, an increase of 16 percent and 11 percent respectively. 

Support for ending the criminal prohibition of cannabis is also rising among demographics traditionally opposed to legalization. For instance, support among GOP voters has risen 14 percent since 2005. Support among self-identified Conservative voters is up 10 percent. In the southern United States, there has been a nine percent jump in overall support. Finally, among those aged 50 to 64, support for legalization has risen 12 percent, and among those age 65 and older – the demographic least likely to back marijuana law reform – support has grown four percent. 

Gallup pollsters analyzed the data and concluded the obvious, “If this current trend on legalizing marijuana continues, pressure may build to bring the nation's laws into compliance with the people's wishes.”

Of course, public pressure has been building for some time now. Since 1996, 16 states and the District of Columbia have initiated statewide laws to allow for the limited legal use of marijuana when recommended by a physician. Laws are also changing in regards to the broader use of cannabis. In fact, in 2011, four states – Arkansas, California, Connecticut, and Kentucky – enacted new laws significantly lowering the penalties for marijuana use and possession. In California and Connecticut, lawmakers took the dramatic step of making such activities non-criminal offenses. 

Nonetheless, federal officials don’t yet seem to be hearing the public’s message – even when it is made clear to them on the White House’s own ‘We the People’ website. In fact, in recent months, the Obama Administration has acted in opposition to voters’ sentiments, stepping up efforts to sanction marijuana consumers, distributors, and providers – including those who are acting in compliance with the laws of their state. But the Administration’s failure to heed public opinion is a gross political miscalculation. 

Rather than rebuff the public's calls for cannabis policy reform, the Administration ought to be embracing it. After all, many of the same voters that put Obama in the White House, including a whopping 69 percent of self-described Liberals, also support marijuana liberalization by a wide margin. Ostracizing this base does not bode well for Obama’s re-election chances. 

The bottom line: marijuana law reform should no longer be viewed by federal legislators as a political liability. For those lawmakers on either side of the aisle willing to advocate for common-sense reforms, this issue represents a unique political opportunity. The public is ready for change; in fact, they are demanding it. Lawmakers can either get with program, or suffer the consequences.

Paul Armentano is the deputy director of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), and is the co-author of the book Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink (2009, Chelsea Green).