An interesting development this week in the US, as support for legalisation of cannabis/marijuana finally achieved a majority - with the latest Gallup national polling showing 50% in favour and 46% opposed. This landmark follows years of growing support for the move despite increasing efforts to undermine the reform campaign by various state and federal agencies - and little support from members of congress or the senate.
It is impossible to tease out precisely what has led to this progressive shift in public opinion. Presumably it has been a combination of factors including:
- A growing realisation that the more hyperbolic reefer madness propaganda of the past was just that.
- A demographic shift, as current and former users progressively become a larger part of the electorate, and also move into positions of influence.
- Growing disquiet over the human and financial costs of mass arrests for cannabis possession offences, particularly at a time of economic crisis.
- The success of the California ballot initiative last year in planting in the public's mind the idea that legalisation is probably inevitable, and could mean controlling, regulating and taxing the industry - not a free-for-all
- The success of decriminalisation models for cannabis possession in a number of US states, and other more far-reaching reforms in Europe (e.g. Dutch coffee shops and Spanish cannabis club models).
- The growing US medical cannabis industry demonstrating that a regulated market model can exist without creating significant problems.
- Increasingly effective and sophisticated campaigning from the reform movement that has pushed the reform arguments into the mainstream public discourse
In any case, US politicians will no longer have the excuse of following (or pandering to) public opinion - rather than showing principled leadership. Support for legalisation could now be an electoral strength rather than a liability, depending on which constituency a politician is targeting - as the breakdown of support below reveals:
Interestingly, in the UK after years of a similar pattern of growing support, we have seen something of a retreat from approaching 50% support, to nearer a third - although it depends how you ask the question. This probably results from more potent indoor grown cannabis (or in the media - 'skunk') becoming increasingly prevalent in the market, and the perception (correct or not) of its increased risk influencing views on whether cannabis more broadly should be legally regulated or not (regulation obviously allows controls on strength potency to be put in place, whilst prohibtion has arguably fuelled the 'skunkification' of the UK market). The more fevered Skunk related 'reefer madness' media coverage that accompanied the cannabis reclassification saga did not help.
None the less, where the US leads on drugs, the UK follows. If public opinion converts into actual reform - whether at state or federal level - it will be hugely significant for drug policy reform internationally, with a number of Latin American countries already indicating they would have to follow suit.
The hope is that if and when it does happen in the US, they do it properly. There is a concern amongst many European reformers that a US model might be overly commercialised; and that an inadequately regulated cannabis market could lead to some of the same problems with marketing and promotions that we have seen with the alcohol and tobacco industry in the last century, only now beginning to be addressed. In short, if the US move towards cannabis legalisation, that would be great, but if they do it badly, it could end up holding back reform elsewhere.
Finally, here's a great rant* about this recent development from Lawrence O'Donnell on MSNBC news.