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
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
"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."