Americans continue to support the legalization of marijuana, with seven polls from five organizations registering between 50% and 58% approval for some form of the question “Should the use of marijuana by adults be made legal or not?”
The rising support for legalization of marijuana can be seen in various polls taken by thirteen organizations since 1969. Marijuana use had reached mainstream cultural visibility by 1969 when Gallup first asked about legalization and found only about 1 in 8 Americans (12%) were supportive of that idea. Through the work of marijuana activists like Keith Stroup, who by 1970 had formed the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), support for legalization rose to as high as 30% in the General Social Survey and 28% in Gallup’s polls.
During the stretch between 1973 and 1978, NORML was instrumental in passing decriminalization measures in eleven states. Five of these states, starting with Oregon in 1973, made the possession of a “personal use amount” (usually an ounce or less) a mere infraction, punishable by ticket and fine with no arrest. Alaska’s Supreme Court, meanwhile, interpreted its state constitution’s privacy clauses as protection against police intrusion for personal use in the home of four ounces or less. Five other states, ending with Nebraska in 1978, maintained a misdemeanor for marijuana possession, but made it a non-arrestable offense.
The 1980s brought a drought in marijuana law reform. After a White House cocaine scandal involving President Carter’s drug policy adviser, support for marijuana legalization waned. New parents’ advocacy groups fought hard against the “420 culture”, Americans were rejecting the “malaise” and hedonism of the 1970′s, and Ronald Reagan promised “morning in America” that came with his wife’s “Just Say No” anti-drug public relations campaign. With marijuana tied to cocaine as “party culture drugs” and numerous celebrities and athletes suffering the ill effects of cocaine abuse, support for marijuana legalization dipped to as low as 16% by 1987.
The 1990s saw the rise of a new tactic in marijuana law reform. With the AIDS epidemic claiming so many gay men, San Francisco Bay Area activists led by Dennis Peron started providing marijuana as medicine to help HIV+ people cope with the loss of appetite, pain, and nausea that accompanied the disease. By 1996, Californians understood the medical aspects of marijuana use and legalized its use as medicine with the Compassionate Use Act. From that moment on, when Gallup’s polls showed about 25% of Americans supported marijuana legalization, the support has only grown.
Now, 17 states* and the District of Columbia have legalized medical use of marijuana and three more states have decriminalized marijuana use, making a total of 25 states and DC that have some form of legal acceptance for marijuana use by adults. Five states have tried legalizing marijuana eight times, all electoral failures; however, two, possibly three states, all with legal medical use, will be voting on legalizing all adult use of marijuana.
The rise in public opinion for marijuana legalization has roughly followed the percentage of US adults aged 18 and older who have admitted to trying the herb. In 1979, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found 29.5% of all adults had tried marijuana; in the latest 2010 survey, 44.5% of all adults (102 million) have tried marijuana in their lifetimes, with almost 26 million using marijuana this year and almost 16 million using marijuana this month.