Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

Thursday, February 7, 2019

More on the forces that have shaped views on marijuana

Download (6)In this post last month, I blogged  this interesting new paper, titled ""How and why have attitudes about cannabis legalization changed so much?", which was recently published in Social Science Research and was authored by Jacob Felson, Amy Adamczyk and Christopher Thomas. I am not pleased to see that the authors of this research have this new piece at The Conversation under the headline "Why do so many Americans now support legalizing marijuana?". Here are excerpts (with links from the original) from this reader-friendly account of their interesting research:

American views on marijuana have shifted incredibly rapidly. Thirty years ago, marijuana legalization seemed like a lost cause. In 1988, only 24 percent of Americans supported legalization.

But steadily, the nation began to liberalize. By 2018, 66 percent of U.S. residents offered their approval, transforming marijuana legalization from a libertarian fantasy into a mainstream cause. Many state laws have changed as well. Over the last quarter-century, 10 states have legalized recreational marijuana, while 22 states have legalized medical marijuana.

So why has public opinion changed dramatically in favor of legalization? In a study published this February, we examined a range of possible reasons, finding that the media likely had the greatest influence....

What has likely made the biggest difference is how the media has portrayed marijuana. Support for legalization began to increase shortly after the news media began to frame marijuana as a medical issue....

In the 1980s, the vast majority of New York Times stories about marijuana were about drug trafficking and abuse or other Schedule I drugs. At that time, The New York Times was more likely to lump marijuana together in a kind of unholy trinity with cocaine and heroin in discussions about drug smuggling, drug dealers and the like.

During the 1990s, stories discussing marijuana in criminal terms became less prevalent. Meanwhile, the number of articles discussing the medical uses of marijuana slowly increased. By the late 1990s, marijuana was rarely discussed in the context of drug trafficking and drug abuse. And marijuana had lost its association with other Schedule I drugs like cocaine and heroin in the New York Times. Gradually, the stereotypical persona of the marijuana user shifted from the stoned slacker wanting to get high to the aging boomer seeking pain relief....

As Americans became more supportive of marijuana legalization, they also increasingly told survey researchers that the criminal justice system was too harsh.

In the late 1980s, the “war on drugs” and sentencing reform laws put a large number of young men, often black and Latino, behind bars for lengthy periods of time. As Americans started to feel the full social and economic effects of tough-on-crime initiatives, they reconsidered the problems with criminalizing marijuana.

Because support for the legalization of marijuana and concerns about the harshness of the criminal justice system changed at about the same time, it’s difficult to know what came first. Did concern about the harshness of the criminal justice system affect support for legalization – or vice versa?

By contrast, the cause and effect is clearer with respect to the media framing of marijuana. The news media’s portrayal of marijuana began to change shortly before the public did, suggesting that the media influenced support for the legalization of marijuana.

Prior related post:

"How and why have attitudes about cannabis legalization changed so much?"

Campaigns, elections and public officials concerning reforms, History of Marijuana Laws in the United States, Medical Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Who decides | Permalink


Don't see it mentioned here, but I would argue that the rise of social media has been one of the largest causes of support for marijuana legalization. Younger people tend to be the ones who use marijuana more, and the rise of social media has allowed for them to have more of a voice and more of an impact on public perception.

Posted by: Jared Kriwinsky | Feb 7, 2019 1:03:21 PM

This is my first post on this webpage. I found this blog about 6 months ago, and I bookmarked it for future reference. I come here about twice a week, to see what’s the latest academic news in the world of cannabis. Prof. Berman, thanks for keeping this blog up to date. I really appreciate it.

With regards to the upward trend in favorable poll numbers, I’m surprised that the article concludes that media played a primary role. I have a different opinion. I believe that the rise in acceptance parallels the growth of the internet, supplemented at a later date by social media. A second major factor is changing demographics.

You may recall that the internet was invented in 1969, and the world wide web was invented in 1989. Despite popular folklore, Al Gore did not invent the internet (ha ha).

Gallup conducted its first marijuana legalization poll in 1969. At that time, support for legalization was only 12%. Nixon started his war on marijuana in 1971. During the 1970s, support for legalization ranged from about 16-28%. The peak occurred about 1977-1978, which parallel’s President Carter’s attempt to decriminalize the drug. Carter failed for several reasons including parental opposition and candidate Ronald Reagan. As you are aware, Reagan and HW Bush continued Nixon’s war until Bush lost to Clinton in 1992. To my disappointment, Clinton was no friend to drug reformers.

Going back to the history of the internet again, the internet boom occurred in the 1990s, leading to the (in)famous bubble in 1997-2001. Social networking began on the internet in the mid-1990s. (Facebook, the king of social networking, was launched in 2004).

Looking at the Gallup poll, an upward trend in favorability for legalization began around 1995. The trajectory is more or less a straight line from 1995 (25%) to 2018 (66%).

Okay, you may be asking, what does one have to do with the other? Before the internet, the government controlled the narrative, commonly with outbound (mis)information to support its position. Most scholars of the topic know that a series of reports over the years concluded that marijuana was not as dangerous as claimed by the US government (Shafer Commission, La Guardia Committee, etc.). There were few ways to publicly disseminate a counter argument to a large number of people.

The internet changed this information exchange. The internet gave people access to the official government (mis)information channels as well as posting of counter-arguments for the first time (NORML, formed in 1970, comes to mind). People could now debate and provide counterarguments within minutes of official information releases.

The rise in social media most likely continued the debate beyond the internet, starting in the mid-2000s, but keep in mind that the upward trajectory in acceptance started 10 years earlier, about 1995.

A second reason for a rise in acceptance of legalization is changing demographics. In general, the older you are, the more likely you oppose legalization. Alternatively, the younger you are, the more likely you support legalization. As the oldsters are forced to turn the world over to the youngsters, changing demographics is changing social attitudes with a relaxed opinion about marijuana.

Keep up the good work. I’ll keep reading.

Dr. Rob

Posted by: Rob Evans | Feb 10, 2019 2:00:26 PM

Thanks for this thoughtful comment, Dr. Rob, and also for your other kind words. I think you and Jared make important points.

Posted by: Doug B | Feb 10, 2019 2:56:50 PM

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