Hutchinson proposed a different explanation for the perceived disconnect between Washington and public opinion: There’s not actually a disconnect.
Asked by a pollster whether they support legalization, Hutchinson says, voters may shrug and say, “Why not?” But ask them just how legalized marijuana should be regulated, how it should be taxed, and whether it should be sold at the corner store in their neighborhood, and they’ll quickly change their tune. That seemed to happen even in liberal California, where a referendum on legalized marijuana failed in 2010 in part because voters worried about the mechanisms for ensuring proper oversight.
There may be something to that. It’s extremely rational to oppose the excesses of the drug war. Harsh sentences for marijuana possession are a big reason that U.S. prisons are teeming with poor, young blacks (who are far more likely to be arrested for marijuana use than middle-class whites). Decriminalizing possession, or at least lightening sentences, seems to be an idea whose time is coming.
But legalizing marijuana? That may still be further than the average American, upon reflection, wants to go. A 2010 study by the nonprofit RAND Corporation suggested that legalizing marijuana in California would send pot prices plummeting and consumption soaring. The impact on the state budget would likely be a net positive, but not enough to make a big dent in the Golden State’s financial crisis.
And for all the efforts of groups like LEAP, there’s still the Cheech and Chong factor. One of the RAND paper’s authors, psychologist and U.C.–Berkeley law professor Robert MacCoun, argued that pot’s place in pop culture makes it hard for even generally supportive people to take the issue seriously. (As a marijuana policy researcher, MacCoun says, he can’t grab a snack at a party without someone joking about the munchies.) That sets marijuana legalization apart from other socially liberal causes, such as gay marriage, with which an impassioned moral appeal can resonate deeply even with those inclined to oppose it.
All that said, it’s clear time is on the smokers’ side. The pre-baby boom generation—the country’s last to grow up believing that marijuana was more likely to cause rape, insanity, and suicide than it was to promote passing out on the couch—won’t be a political factor much longer. Today’s middle-aged voters came of age in the 1970s, when marijuana use was even more common than it is today. Some may harbor reservations about laws that allow their kids and grandkids to follow their lead as tokers, but they’re far less likely than their parents to lump weed in the same category as more destructive drugs like heroin and cocaine. It won’t happen today, and it won’t happen in the next four years. Eventually, though, we’ll have our first weed-legalization president.