The Rise of Legal Weed

Is marijuana the next gay marriage?

November 4, 2014

By Kelly Dickerson and Oliver Morrison

Although much of the attention this election has been on which party would control the Senate, it could be remembered later as the election that solidified a growing movement to legalize marijuana. Oregon, Alaska and Washington DC all voted to legalize recreational marijuana.

This is the second election in a row where legalization was approved in multiple states, following more than a decade of successful votes for the legalization of medicinal marijuana. This trend may sound familiar: a similar increase in support started happening 10 years ago with gay marriage.

During the 2004 election, voters in the United States abandoned the Democratic party over social issues like gay marriage. Now just 10 years later, public opinion has drastically shifted. Gay marriage has won sweeping victories among voters, legislatures and most prominently in the federal courts. Now marriage equality is the law in more than half of the country.

There are signs that the legalization of marijuana is following a similar pattern.

An increasing number of states are legalizing medicinal marijuana and gay marriage

Just as the rise of gay marriage was presaged by the rise of civil union and domestic partnership laws, an increasing number of states have legalized medicinal marijuana and decriminalized the possession of marijuana in small amounts.

Gay marriage started in just a few states and then, as a few years passed, and gay marriage became legal, increasingly more states joined on every year. Colorado and Washington have legalized recreational use and Alaska, Oregon and Washington D.C. could be on the verge of doing the same.

A majority of Americans now support legalization of marijuana and gay marriage

(Gallup Poll)

Gay marriage did not have popular support for many decades, but in the last decade a majority of Americans have come to support it and support has increased in every demographic. Marijuana has received a nearly identical increase in support.

Support for legalization of marijuana has gone up in nearly every demographic

States that have legalized gay marriage have also legalized medicinal marijuana

Almost every state that has legalized gay marriage has also legalized medicinal marijuana. There are two exceptions. Iowa has legalized gay marriage, but has yet to legalize medicinal marijuana. Montana has legalized medicinal marijuana but not gay marriage.

But the experts say it might not be that simple....

The crime lobby stands in the way

The enforcement lobby, which has largely been against the legalization of marijuana, is a more powerful force in a American politics than the religious conservatives who have fought gay marriage, according to Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. One reason is that politicians have been loathe to appear soft on crime. “For a politician to suggest I’m going to decriminalize a drug or legalize a drug, a lot of people say that still would be political suicide, even in Oregon,” said Debbie Kauffman who teaches a course titled The Politics of Marijuana at Portland State University.

A new president could stop marijuana in its tracks

“Even if the Oregon law passes, if the two years between 2014 and 2016 manifest more of the problematic side of marijuana legalization, one wouldn’t rule out support freezing or even reversing,” said Jonathan Caulkins, professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. “And of course a new president in 2016 could shut it all down since it is all still entirely against federal law.”

Marijuana doesn't have the courts

“Same sex marriage has not been adopted by legislative means,” said Andrew Karch, political science professor at the University of Minnesota. "Same sex marriage is being litigated in the courts and the rulings are unusually rapid. I can’t foresee something similar happening in the case of marijuana."

Voters may take ‘wait and see’ approach

Whether two other people get married or not, won’t affect most people, said Olson. But the legalization of marijuana could have a significant impact on life in cities for all people, so voters are being careful. "In a lot of states the argument has been yeah public opinion has shifted, but let’s see how it works out in Washington and Colorado first,” said Olson. “Even some people in the middle who kind of like the idea of legalizing, say let’s go step by step, let’s figure out what problems there are."

"I’ve heard some of the presentations from some of the 'no campaign’ in Oregon,” said Kauffman. “The say ‘Why are we in such a hurry? Let’s wait and see what other states do first."

Still, marijuana does have a few advantages...

Marijuana laws can pass without amending state constitutions

Many conservative states passed laws making same sex marriage illegal under the constitution. Marijuana laws are not part of the constitution and so typically need fewer votes to be repulsed. "In some states you would need two-thirds majority across multiple sessions [to legalize gay marriage],” Karch said. “With medicinal marijuana, you may just need to make a statutory change."

Marijuana makes money

Marijuana brings in tax revenue, which gay marriage does not. "That can definitely matter,” said Karch. "One of the most commonly studied of patterns of adoption at the state level is the lottery. You really can see an element of economic competition between states.”

There's a larger trend toward greater lifestyle freedom

Olson says that, although not universally true, the country has become more supportive of a hands-off approach on a variety of social issues in addition to marijuana and gay marriage, including gambling and pornography, which the Cato Institute supports. He says the data shows people are not using marijuana more or saying they want to use it more, just that they don’t agree with the government’s current approach about telling other people what they can or can’t do. “Whether or not you want to use it or whether you want your neighbor or family to use it, it still makes sense to relax the punitive ways the government was addressing it,” said Olson.