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.