Bryan Caplan  

The Triumph of Harold, Kumar, and Liberty

If I Had More Time... A Tax Increase I Can Support...
In two weeks, I'm giving a FEE lecture on "Public Opinion for Libertarians."  I'll probably start by asking for a show of hands: "Who wants the depressing version of today's lecture?  Okay, who wants the really depressing version?"  The sad truth is that the status quo is quite popular, and even moderate libertarian reforms like abolishing the minimum wage are persistently abhorrent to the overwhelming majority of the population.

Still, there's one amazing exception: marijuana legalization.  For decades, public support was stuck at about one-in-four.  I'd decided legalization was hopeless, except maybe through a medical marijuana loophole.  But yesterday I learned that pro-legalization sentiment exploded during the Naughts.  Gallup's been asking since 1970.  The latest news:
Gallup's October Crime poll finds 44% of Americans in favor of making marijuana legal and 54% opposed. U.S. public support for legalizing marijuana was fixed in the 25% range from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, but acceptance jumped to 31% in 2000 and has continued to grow throughout this decade.
What's behind the change?  The biggest shifts between 2005 and 2009 are among the young and women.  The young were always relatively supportive, but now they're absolutely so.  Women, on the other hand, were historically less supportive, but the gender gap has almost vanished. 

One of my colleagues jokingly credited Harold and Kumar.  Their first movie premiered in 2004, so the timing's about right.  But then why didn't Cheech and Chong get the job done thirty years ago?  At least to me, the sudden swing in public opinion remains a mystery.  Ideas?  And if persistent opposition can finally crack for marijuana, how about the minimum wage?

Update: In the comments, Gabriel writes:
it looks like cohort replacement based on a quick and dirty analysis of the GSS variables "grass" "age" and "year". cohorts born since 1950 are much more tolerant of weed than older cohorts and over time they've become a much greater proportion of the population.
Yes, but why did cohort replacement make so little difference between 1977 and 1996?

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (25 to date)
david writes:

Like Nixon going to China, I don't foresee the minimum wage being removed until the US moves so far left that the party making the argument cannot be accused of being corporatist.

scott clark writes:

DARE programs in school would be my guess for the increasing support for drug legalization. The youth could see how absurd the DARE presentationt are and figured the only way to make this stop is to legalize it. Pop culture provided the necessary mockery to crystalize the anti-DARE sentiment that was brewing in the hearts of the kids subjected to DARE assemblies.
I can't make this translate into an anti-minimum wage campaign.

Gabriel writes:

it looks like cohort replacement based on a quick and dirty analysis of the GSS variables "grass" "age" and "year". cohorts born since 1950 are much more tolerant of weed than older cohorts and over time they've become a much greater proportion of the population.

Doc Merlin writes:

One theory:
Cheech and Chong were portrayed as "dirty mexicans" or "dirty hippies" weras Harold and Kumar were moderately successful white collar types?

eccdogg writes:

What about the proportion of the population that has tried Marijuana.

I was always a mildly in favor of ending prohibition, but once I smoked pot it sealed the deal for me. The experience just wasn't that overwhelming.

Maybe having several presidents in a row who have likely smoked pot also lowers the feeling that it is a really bad thing.

Adam writes:

Maybe programs like Cops and Intervention. Marijuana is conspicuously absent from both shows.

You just don't ever see the wife explaining to the officers that her husband just won't stop beating her because he has been getting high all day.

agnostic writes:

The GSS shows a more nuanced and *cyclical* picture (GRASS). Support rose from 1973 to '78 or '79, but headed down and stayed low from 1980 to 1990, before rising again in 1991 through 2008. Contra the Gallup poll, most of the recent rise was during the '90s, with a plateau during the 2000s.

Also the fractions in favor of legalization are somewhat smaller than in the Gallup poll, possibly due to wording differences. But the important thing here, namely the pattern over time, looks less promising. For all we know, support is about to enter the downward phase of the cycle.

mulp writes:

The number of people who know who Ronald Reagan is from more than a name in a public school textbook has fallen significantly.

Remarks at a White House Briefing for Service Organization Representatives on Drug Abuse

July 30, 1986

Thank you, Charlie, and thank you all for being here today and for all that you're doing to help America. Drug abuse has been a major concern of Nancy's and mine, as you've just been told, dating back to a time long before we came to the White House. Our concern, of course, was not shared by everyone. And during the late 1960's and into the last decade, a flippant and irresponsible attitude toward drug use permeated too much of our society. The gurus of hedonism and permissiveness were given a respectable hearing back in those days; the heartache and misery came along later.

Pundits and commentators have said a great deal about the positive changes that America has gone through these last 5\1/2\ years. I think one of the most heartwarming -- and one of which I am exceptionally proud -- is the change in attitude toward drugs. I'm particularly proud of the role that Nancy has played in this. As you probably know, she's made the fight against drug abuse a national crusade. From one line that she used out in Oakland, California, answering a young person's question when she was speaking to them about what to do about it -- and she said, ``Just say no.'' And today Just Say No is a nationwide organization of young people that are pledged to say, ``Just say no.''
[Remainder of speech can be found at Please do not quote long excerpts of material that can already be found on the web. It is sufficient to quote a short excerpt and link to it, or also to summarize it in your own words.--Econlib Ed.]

agnostic writes:

Re: Cheech & Chong and Harold and Kumar, it looks like they were jumping on the bandwagon long after it had gotten going. C&C's first movie came out right as support had peaked and was about to turn down through 1990. Harold and Kumar came out 13 years after support had turned up again, and was in a plateau phase.

Competitive pop culture industries respond to the preferences of their audiences, not the other way around.

Joel writes:

I'd feel better about the "libertarian" sentiment behind legalization if I didn't keep hearing the argument "let's legalize it, so we can tax it!"

Lori writes:

Part of pro-marijuana-legalization sentiment comes from a sense that the war on drugs is a lost cause. Perhaps the abolition of minimum wage that you desire can result from the public giving up on the war on poverty. Maybe you should promote Jesus' prophesy that 'the poor you will always have with you.' While it would no doubt be a non-starter for your rather doctrinaire style of thought, I could probably be sold on an anti-minimum-wage stand if some alternative safety net were offered in its place, such as a more generous (esp. for the child-free) EITC, or better yet some kind of 'basic income' scheme.

My problems with the market economy result from the hardships of being an introvert in a world in which you have to market yourself, i.e. a market-oriented world. Minimum wage (let alone 'employer mandate') of course increases the role of [expletive deleted] salescrittership in getting hired. On the other hand, I don't want cheapness itself to be my selling point, as I don't want to feel like a [expletive deleted] scab. I admit my choice of opinions is tribal as well as philosophical.

It's usually assumed that people who have tried pot are the natural constituency for legalizing it. I'm not sure about that. It's possible that people who have tried pot associate it with irresponsibility.

Besides, users of a suggestibility drug are more likely to fool themselves into agreeing with an anti-drug consensus.

David C writes:

I'd say the rise of the internet is the most likely cause. Marijuana legalization has always had a large network of supporters with very few means of organizing. Who wants to jeopardize their illegal smoking habits by publicly joining a legalization organization? The internet allowed people to express their support for such groups anonymously. Carnivore and Echelon could have still spotted you, but employers and local police weren't thinking about it yet. Tracking people is easier now, but the movement has probably reached a critical mass where people aren't as worried about going public about their illicit activities.

Gary Rogers writes:

I would credit the change to fourty years of experience. The more we fight the war on drugs, the more we end up fighting ourselves, spending billions of dollars and producing negative results. Those with common sense are beginning to draw the conclusion that if somebody cannot decide for himself whether or not to take drugs, it is not worth destroying hundreds of thousands of lives trying to force the issue.

NZ writes:

I don't buy the "legalization of weed is popular now because we are finally fed up with the war on drugs" argument: legalization of meth, cocaine, and heroin is still highly unpopular, regardless of the fact that the legalization of these drugs would do the most good to the people most injured by drug prohibition.

Stephen Smith writes:

I think that marijuana legalization isn't actually an exception form your theory about people supporting the status quo. I imagine that a lot of the increase in support comes from people living in California and in other places that have (accidentally) made marijuana de facto legal. I would guess that the spill-over from the quasi-legal California crop probably raised smoking rates in the rest of the country, exposing more people to it.

So yeah, I'm going with the California-accidentally-basically-legalized-it theory of why support has accelerated recently.

I think we saw a similar dynamic in the Netherlands – the Dutch weren't necessarily horribly pro-drug, they just didn't realize that tolerating something that's technically illegal according to Dutch law (selling marijuana) would snowball into the even more de facto legalization. (Although the truth is that California and Holland have laws that are similarly liberal, just in different ways. In California growing is more tolerated than in Holland, whereas in the Netheralnds you don't need a fake perscription to buy it.)

JLA writes:

Has the frequency/penalty for getting caught lighting up gone up over time?

Van Veraf writes:

Marijuana legalization is not the only exception. I don't have statistics, but I think it is fair to say that support for at least the following has also increased and in some cases already led to legalization:
1. Same sex intercourse
2. Same sex marriage
3. Different race intercourse
4. Nudity, swearing and things previously regarded profanic in media

Doug writes:

Cannabis is already legalized in the form of JWH-018/073. The stuff is openly sold on the internet by American companies. It's indistinguishable from marijuana in effect (since it's a close analog of THC), and the only difference is that it comes as a white powder instead of plant material.

Virtually every illegal drug now has some closely related analog that's legal, manufactured in bulk in China and sold over the internet. Proving once again that globalization and technology will do for freedom what politicians will not.

Michael Bishop writes:

I don't see a trackback... here's the link to Gabriel's post on the topic... nice graph.

Ed writes:

Maybe start referring to the minimum wage as a minimum unemployment for the poor.

BZ writes:

@Joel - amen.

.. though I don't feel much better about the argument to end it because "the war on drugs is a failure". So, if we were we able to get 100% of the people who had touched the weed into prison, it would be worth keeping?

@Lori - I would only support the minimum wage if I hated poor people and wanted to see them unemployed and desperate for as long as possible. Since I don't hate poor people, I just can't support it.

Even though not an American citizen I can notice a similar trend in the Greek public opinion range. Shouldn't the fact that TV, internet, movies, shows, etc. are changing the perception on the consumption of drugs wordwide? Greetings.

mulp writes:

Reagan justified drug laws which became draconian with Locke:
All of you and your magnificent organizations in many ways represent the best hope for America's youth. John Locke, a great intellectual whose ideas greatly affected those who laid the philosophical foundation of American freedom, once wrote: ``A sound mind in a sound body, is a short but full description of a happy state in this world.'' Well, our goal is to make certain that illegal drugs do not deprive any American of a happy state of sound mind and body. I want each of you and the members of your organizations to know how much Nancy and I and your fellow citizens appreciate what you're doing.

No wonder drug prohibition sounds like liberty - it is justified by two iconic figures for libertarians.

Patri Friedman writes:

And since libertarianism has little popular support, surely a strategy such as seasteading or the free state project which makes freedom with the libertarians we have is vastly more likely to succeed than a strategy which depends on first shifting the juggernaut of popular opinion.

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