Bryan Caplan  

Rojas on Marijuana Legalization

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Support for marijuana legalization was stalled for decades, then skyrocketed.  What happened?  Vox's latest analysis heavily relies on sociologist Fabio Rojas, also known as the Best Man at my wedding.  Highlights:

Fabio Rojas, a professor at Indiana University who studies social movements, said that these movements tend to be driven by ballot initiatives, lobbying of policymakers, or mass protests that raise awareness.

Up to this point, the marijuana legalization movement has largely relied on ballot initiatives to change state laws. Colorado and Washington voters legalized marijuana at the polls in 2012, and legalization measures are on the ballot in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, DC, in November.

How did the U.S. break out of the anti-legalization equilibrium?

Rojas of Indiana University suggested the advancements of the movement could be a self-perpetuating cycle: As more states legalized medical marijuana, Americans saw that the risks of allowing medicinal use didn't come to fruition as opponents warned. That reinforced support for medical marijuana, which then made politicians more comfortable with their own support for reform.

A similar cycle could be playing out with full legalization, Rojas explained. As voters see medical marijuana and legalization can happen without major hitches, they might be more likely to start supporting full legalization.

"People said, 'Okay, now that someone else is throwing this out in public, it's okay for me to vote for it or approve it,'" Rojas said. "That's probably the main driving force: using the electoral system to push ideas that people may be afraid to think about or consider because they're illegitimate -- or at least they were."

The rapid change in public opinion could have been helped along by the internet, which allows people to share stories about their own pot use, research about the issue, and states' experiences with relaxed marijuana laws much more quickly.

"When I was a college student around 1990, other than hardcore political wonky types, ... nobody really talk about drug legalization," Rojas said. "Now, you can go on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, and people can share a news story. You get exposed to it constantly."

Then what's taking so long?

Rojas of Indiana University indicated the lack of support from lawmakers reflects the strong establishment support -- and financial incentives -- behind marijuana prohibition. Police departments, for instance, get millions in federal funding to fight the war on drugs. If marijuana was legal, some of that money for police departments could dry up.

"In the case of gay rights, people have a prejudice against gays, but there are very few people who draw a paycheck out of it," Rojas said. "When it comes to drugs, lots of people are drawing paychecks from it."

Unlike other social movements, marijuana legalization also doesn't have a civil rights claim built into it. With same-sex marriage, a gay or lesbian couple can intuitively argue that they should be able to use their fundamental right to marry who they want to receive equal benefits under the law. The civil rights issues surrounding marijuana, such as the disproportionate enforcement of the law on black communities, are more nuanced and less intuitively linked to legalization.

"When it comes to [marriage] rights, it's the freedom to do the right thing," Rojas said. "When you're talking about a personal vice like drinking alcohol or smoking drugs, that's the freedom to do wrong."

Mueller and Wilkinson are rhetorical exceptions that prove Rojas' rule.

P.S. I'm still waiting for Tyler to bet me on marijuana legalization.  I say it's coming, parents notwithstanding.

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COMMENTS (8 to date)
michael pettengill writes:

Given legalization has been happening for about two decades, ignoring the laws passed by States in the 70s quickly overwhelmed by Reagan's political strategy, the progress has been extremely slow.

Given the conservative States Rights stance combined with the Reagan political strategy of Federal jack boot drug prosecution, and the ongoing conservative claims of being just like Reagan, the Federal government has crushed any real progress at the State level.

Since Obama and Holder, they have maintained total ambiguity on Federal drug policy.

They have not advocated pot legalization to give conservatives a strong reason to attack them for destroying America.

They have said "drugs are illegal no matter what the voters say in States" so conservatives can't say Obama is violating the Constitution.

They have ignored Federal drug laws in most cases in most States, but not completely, so its impossible to claim Obama and Holder are sending in jackboot Federal agents accompanied by black helicopters and drones.

Obama and Holder have used a policy of "I see nothing, I know nothing" to let the States implement progressive legalization with sufficient ambiguity that it couldn't be turned into a coherent political attack.

Like they did on gay rights.

Unlike Clinton on both gay rights and pot.

Now, even if a Republican wins in 2016, Federal action can only move toward legalization unless some cases can be invented of "pot crazed teenagers behead hundreds of children" to stoke fear in support of sending the black helicopters and drones into a couple dozen States guiding jackboot Federal storm troopers.

If Boehner were smart he would sneak a States can override Federal pot laws in the lame duck session in 2016 through the House as a rider on a must pass bill which will then pass the Senate with no debate and little notice at the time. And denying Obama credit.

Otherwise, Congress will remain complicit in flagrant and increasing violation of Federal law until in 2025 they explicitly cede authority to the States on pot.

No way will Congress do anything to rationalize the horrid evolution of drug laws over the past century before maybe 2040.

Too many public policy issues have become political weapons so its impossible for them to be debated rationally and then rational laws passed by Congress, and "illegal drugs" is at the top of the list.

LD Bottorff writes:

Professor Rojas may be a great guy, but the comparisons between legalizing pot and redefining marriage don't compute. For thousands of years humans of all cultures have had a system of joining men and women together in marriage. Although same-sex coupling has also occurred for thousands of years, it is fairly recent that anyone thought to equate these couplings with marriage.
On the other hand, people have also used recreational drugs for thousands of years. The efforts to criminalize this behavior is fairly recent, dating back only a few hundred years at most. Getting the Federal government out of the marijuana market would be more like going back to the traditional federalist arrangement that existed before the Progressives decided that the Federal government needed to keep us from harming ourselves.

Jay writes:


I don't want to get in the way of your ideological tirade against the right, but maybe you should look up how many dispensaries in CA have been shut down in this administration versus the previous one.

NZ writes:

@michael pattengill:

I also don't want to get in the way of your ideological tirade against the Right, but maybe you should check and see whether it was the Right or the Left who dreamed up, pushed into law, and executed the war on drugs.

To add to what Jay wrote, not only have Obama and Holder done plenty of jackboot stomping/black helicoptering on the American marijuana industry, but civil forfeiture would be nothing of what it is today without Joe Biden. (I haven't looked into it, but I'm sure you could find plenty of other Drug War Heavy Hitters among Obama's appointees, too.)

And doesn't Michelle Obama's war on junk food kind of have a familiar vibe to it? And who tends to be bigger supporters of the war on tobacco--Right or Left?

@Bryan (or anyone else who wants to answer, since Bryan doesn't participate in EconLog comments sections):

Do you think these state-level marijuana legalizations will last more than 20-30 years? If so, why?

Fabio Rojas writes:

Thanks for the link! I hope the article spurs more debate for legalization.

ThomasH writes:

Marijuana legalization has been a standard liberal wish list item for years (more because of sentencing disparities than strict cost benefit analysis), but to dangerous to touch. Thanks to libertarian ideas making inroads into conservative rhetoric it has become less dangerous. Libertarians have a lot to congratulate themselves for.

Mack S. writes:

"Unlike other social movements, marijuana legalization also doesn't have a civil rights claim built into it…"

This made my heart hurt.

When did the words "civil rights" take on the more limited meaning "minority group interests"?

The war on weed has always been a civil rights issue, involving a reduction in freedom and personal privacy for everyone.

It didn't suddenly become a civil rights issue only after some specific group got involved. The real sentencing disparity for drug crimes is not between white and black. It's between any sentence and zero!

NZ writes:

@Mack S.

The war on weed has always been a civil rights issue, involving a reduction in freedom and personal privacy for everyone.
That's not actually true. Initial resistance to anti-marijuana legislation came from conservatives and was based around the crazy notion that banning marijuana would lead to both increased smuggling, black markets, and crime, and to expansion in government power. The "right to get high" never factored into it.

Believe it or not, getting stoned hasn't always been considered "cool" and respectable.

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