For the first time, a majority of Americans favor legalizing the use of marijuana, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. The Pew survey, conducted March 13-17 among 1,501 adults, found that 52% of those surveyed support the legalization of marijuana while 45% say it should remain illegal.
Restrictions on the sale of marijuana, or Cannabis Sativa, began as early as 1619, when King James I ordered every colonist in England’s only colony in America to grow 100 plants for export. Hemp was ubiquitous in the United States throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. George Washington grew marijuana at Mount Vernon as one of his three primary crops; hemp was a common material used in the creation of rope and fabric; and in the 1850s American pharmacies began making available medical preparations of cannabis. In 1853, the New York Timesreferred to marijuana as one of America’s “fashionable narcotics.”
By the early 1900s, however, criticism regarding the availability of narcotics brought about a wave of legislation aimed at strengthening the regulation of “poisons.” The “poison laws” were among the United States’ first attempt to regulate pharmaceuticals, requiring either labels on the packaging indicating the harmful effects of the drugs or prohibiting the sale of the drugs outside of licensed pharmacies and without a doctor’s prescription.
Pre-1900, many states did not consider cannabis a “poison,” but nonetheless required it be labeled. But in 1913, California became the first U.S. state to include cannabis as a poison, which many believe was simply a legislative mistake, by amending The Poison Act. The Act made the possession of “extracts, tinctures, or other narcotic preparations of hemp, or loco-weed, their preparations and compounds” a misdemeanor. Other states soon followed suit: Wyoming (1915); Texas (1919); Iowa (1923); Nevada (1923); Oregon (1923); Washington (1923); Arkansas (1923); and Nebraska (1927).
After the formation of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) in 1930, the federal government started eyeing the outlaw of all recreational drugs. The FBN produced propaganda films claiming that cannabis caused people to commit violent crimes and act overly sexual. It also published public service announcements assailing marijuana as a “killer drug” and “powerful narcotic in which lurks Murder! Insanity! Death!”
These efforts ultimately led to the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which made the possession or transfer of cannabis illegal under federal law, excluding medical and industrial uses. In Leary v. United States (1969), the Supreme Court dealt the Marijuana Tax Act a crippling blow and washed away its constitutional underpinnings. However, it did not declare the tax unconstitutional, contrary to many proponents of marijuana legalization. Nevertheless. in 1970 Congress repealed the Marijuana Tax Act and replaced it with the Controlled Substances Act as Title II of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. Under the Controlled Substances Act, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug, which are the most tightly regulated.
Schedule I status means that (a) the drug has a high potential for abuse, (b) the drug has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and (c) there is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug under medical supervision. In addition to marijuana, other Schedule I drugs include, for example, heroin, LSD and ecstasy. For comparison, cocaine, opium and methamphetamine are classified as Schedule II drugs, which are not as tightly regulated.
Since the 1970s, there have been numerous efforts to decriminalize marijuana. A 1972 report from the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, commissioned by President Richard Nixon, found that marijuana “is not a potent producer of behavior.” In 1974, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize cannabis possession, and by 1978 Alaska, California, Colorado, Mississippi, New York, Nebraska, North Carolina and Ohio has all passed some form of cannabis decriminalization. And then, on Nov. 6, 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize the sale and possession of cannabis for recreational use (Colorado Amendment 64; Washington Initiative 502). After the measures passed, The Economist called the occasion “an electoral first not only for America but for the world.”
If the recent Pew Research Center survey is any indication, public opinion has continued to liberalize on this issue. And it has done so remarkably fast. In 1969, Gallup found that just 12% favored legalizing marijuana use, while 84% were opposed. In 1991, 17% favored legalizing marijuana use, while 78% remain opposed. But in 2013, for the first time, a majority of Americans, by a 52 to 45 margin, thought marijuana should be made legal in the United States. As Pew noted, “Support for legalizing marijuana has risen 11 points since 2010.”
Predictably, 65 percent of Millennials (born 1981-present) favored legalizing marijuana. There was a striking change, however, among older generations of Americans. Notably, half (50%) of Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) now favor legalizing marijuana, rebounding from a low of 17% in 1990. In addition, support among Generation X (born 1965-1980), individuals who “came of age in the 1990s when there was widespread opposition to legalizing marijuana,” rose dramatically – from just 28% in 1994 to 54% currently.
In February, Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) introduced H.R. 499, entitled Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2013. The Act would direct the Attorney General to “issue a final order that removes marijuana in any form from all schedules of controlled substances under the Controlled Substances Act.” As of today, the bill has been referred to the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, And Investigations.