Keith Stroup – Majority Support

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NORML_GallupPoll_2013

I am sometimes amazed at the ability of some legalization activists – especially the true believers who want to hold out for full legalization until they can pass a law with no limits on the amount of marijuana an adult can grow or possess, and no limits on who can sell marijuana to whom – to listen to each other and to convince themselves what they are hearing is a reflection of public opinion in this country. This ‘tomato model’, as it is sometimes called, has little appeal beyond those of us who smoke.

Those of us who support marijuana legalization have been thrilled to see the many national polls showing a majority of the country finally support the full legalization of marijuana. According to the Gallup polling organization, 58% of the population now support the legalization, regulation and taxation of marijuana for adults, regardless of why one smokes. The support for legalization, at only 12% when Gallup first asked this question in 1969, the year before NORML was founded, has slowly gained acceptance – with a modest decline in support between 1977 to 1990, followed by a steady increase that finally broke the 50% mark about three years ago. Several other national polls have since confirmed this result.

However, only about 14% of the country are marijuana smokers – 86% are not.  The continued support of a majority of those non-smokers is crucial if we are to continue to move full legalization forward across the country.

Some non-smokers have likely been persuaded to become “pro-pot” because they have seen the sometimes miraculous medical uses of marijuana in their lives and their communities. But the vast majority of supporters who are non-smokers are not pro-pot in any traditional sense of the phrase; rather they are anti-prohibition. They have become convinced, just as most non-drinkers were by the end of alcohol prohibition, that prohibition causes far more harm to society than the use of the drug it is intended to suppress.

This is a far more nuanced position than that held by most smokers, who enjoy smoking marijuana and naturally do not wish to be treated like criminals.  The continued support of those who support legalization because they see prohibition as a failed public policy depends on our implementing these new legalization laws in a responsible manner that addresses their concerns.

We know from exit polling that many non-smokers have two primary concerns: first, they worry that legalization may increase the numbers of adolescents who smoke; second, they fear that legalization may result in a spike in the number of impaired drivers on the roads -both legitimate concerns that we must treat seriously if we expect to maintain their support for our proposals. Without it, we simply do not have the ability to enact voter initiatives or pass state legislation to legalize marijuana.

In fact, adolescents have always experimented with marijuana in significant numbers, with roughly half of high school seniors acknowledging they have used marijuana by the time they graduate for the last several decades. But the same is true for their experimentation with alcohol, and the majority of adolescents admit that it is more difficult for them to obtain alcohol underage than marijuana; with alcohol they either have to find an older friend to buy the alcohol for them, or get a fake ID. With marijuana purchased on the black market, no one asks for an ID.  Legalizing and regulating marijuana, with appropriate age controls, will make marijuana less available to adolescents, not more.

In addition, despite the significant number of adolescents who experiment with marijuana while in high school, the vast majority of them successfully complete their education, graduate college, get married, find employment, raise a family, and contribute to their communities in a positive manner. In other words, there is little, if any, evidence that their experimenting with marijuana as an adolescent harms their lives in any manner.

Similarly, the fear of an increase in the number of stoned drivers on the roads is largely misdirected. First, an estimated 30 million Americans smoke marijuana each year in this country, and most of us occasionally drive after we have smoked.  We certainly did not give up driving when we began smoking marijuana, although most of us recognize that one is somewhat impaired for an hour or so after smoking, and adjust our driving patterns accordingly.

There has been no uptick in drivers impaired on marijuana or charged with DUID offenses, even as the number of marijuana smokers continues to increase.

Scientific research shows is that it is especially dangerous to drive after drinking alcohol, as the mistakes made are aggressive and often deadly – speeding, passing on a curve, and other reckless behavior. Smoking marijuana does impair the driver, but the mistakes made are generally related to the short-term memory loss associated with the marijuana high – and drivers who know they are stoned generally slow down to accommodate, rendering the potential harm far less dangerous.

Most of us can remember an example of when we were uncertain if we had passed the turnpike exit we wanted and slowing down to accommodate for the confusion.

It is worth noting the particular danger of mixing the two drugs before driving; studies show they exacerbate the impairment, and together are far more debilitating than the use of either drug by itself.  One should never drive after smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol – designated drivers are necessary in such situations.

Legalizing marijuana following 75 years of prohibition is a big step for any state to make, and if it is to be judged to be successful by the general public, it requires those of us who smoke to exercise our new right in a responsible manner, and to keep in mind the importance of maintaining the political support of the majority of Americans who do not smoke. They continue to hold the key to fully legalizing marijuana, even though they are not consumers themselves.

About Author

Keith Stroup is a Washington, DC public-interest attorney who founded NORML in 1970. Stroup first smoked marijuana when he was a first-year law student in 1965 and has been a regular smoker and a cannabis activist ever since. In 1992 Stroup was the recipient of the Richard J. Dennis Drugpeace Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Drug Policy Reform presented by the Drug Policy Foundation; in 2010 he received the Al Horn Award from the NORML Legal Committee for a lifetime of work advancing the cause of justice; and in 2012, Stroup received the High Times Lifetime Achievement Award. Keith currently serves as NORML's Legal Counsel and on NORML's Board of Directors. He resides in Falls Church, Virginia with his wife.

6 Comments

  1. Craig Bonsai on

    Very well written, and very true, not that I would expect anything else from Mr Stroup.
    The point that we need a good number of non-smokers to help move this along is a very important one, and a point not voiced often enough. We must continue to be responsible and put the best face possible on this movement in order for it to succeed.

  2. I would ask you to jettison the talk of “smokers” and “smoking” and give serious attention to the VAPE TOKE revolution (including the fact that you can VAPE with a Flexible Extended Drawtube One-hitter hand-made from parts costing $1.29 or so). Who needs heat shock, carbon monoxide and 4221 combustion toxins producing “dopy” stoner behavior blamed on the THC. The “joint” is a Trojan Horse luring children into the mystique of $igarette smoking, adult gestures etc., until they settle for a “square” or two… Zap! Hooked for Life! 6,000,000 deaths a year worldwide.

    All that said, congratulations Keith on the progress achieved during your career. Stage 2: once $igarette papers are a distant memory certain early cannabis activists will get the deserved reward– a Knowitwell Prize, $1,300,000 last time I looked, which you can use for promoting more NORMLcy.

  3. John H Johnson III on

    I think that you guys would be surprised to know that a lot of people see this not just as states rights issue but a personal rights issue, so for all those so worried about the kids, they are more worried that they could be arrested for some technicality like what California and Montana endured. With all the regulations such as the unscientific DUI limits that got shot down in California recently but still plagues other states, they don’t want virtually any laws. I for one can’t smoke because of my job but if I were able to, I wouldn’t want virtually any laws, just treat the plant like any other vegetable. The only laws we need are protections against registries so that my job can’t find out I use whether it’s for medical or recreational and so on.

  4. Very true. We ask for legalization, we get cannabis oil. Oh well, cannabis oil comes from a marijuana plant, and that’s a big step forward here in Iowa. How much longer is marijuana going to remain classified as having no medical utility?

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