The future goes to pot [Commentary]

With public sentiment favoring marijuana legalization, politicians will eventually have to bring the law in line

April 29, 2014|Thomas F. Schaller

Had somebody told me seven years ago when I started writing for The Sun that one day I would pen a column jointly praising Allan Kittleman and John Paul Stephens, I would have told her she was high.

But that's the funny thing about weed, isn't it? It has the power to bring together otherwise different-minded people, including the 55-year-old Maryland Republican state senator and the 94-year-old retired Supreme Court associate justice, each of whom this month helped advance the long-overdue cause of marijuana legalization.

Talking to NPR last week, Mr. Stevens said it's time for America to legalize marijuana use. He compared today's marijuana laws to the Prohibition Era of the 1920s and early 1930s. "[T]here's a general consensus that [Prohibition] was not worth the cost," he said, adding that he also believes "in time that will be the general consensus with respect to" marijuana.

The alcohol-marijuana analogy is imperfect. Booze was proscribed by national amendment, thereby making its re-legalization far more difficult. Conversely, marijuana consumption is presently illegal in most states, which could make de novo legalization difficult for the public to embrace.

Still, the analogy generally holds: A popular, regulated and taxed substance is banned, to the detriment of the citizenry which enriches criminals instead of funneling monies into public treasuries, while communities lose friends and family members to prison terms who might otherwise be contributing (and yes: taxpaying) members of society.

A bill co-sponsored by Senator Kittleman and later signed into law on April 14 by Gov. Martin O'Malley re-classified possession or use of less than 10 grams of marijuana from a criminal offense to a civil offense. This is an important advance that made Maryland the 15th state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. Recently, two other states — Colorado and Washington — legalized the use and sale of marijuana by adults.

More than two dozen Maryland-based organizations joined forces to support passage of the new law. This polyglot alliance, known as the Marijuana Policy Coalition of Maryland, fused together state chapters of organizations with specific interest in drug policy (Marijuana Policy Project, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) with general civil liberties groups (American Civil Liberties Union, Libertarian Party) and race-based organizations particularly interested in the adverse sentencing impacts of drug laws on their communities (CASA, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).

Their shared victory was not the triumph of a persistent, fringe element over the public will. In fact, a poll last conducted last fall by Public Policy Polling found that 68 percent of Marylanders support decriminalizing possession of marijuana in small amounts.

Marylanders' attitudes are consistent with changing attitudes across the country. According to the national Marijuana Policy Project, "the public is far ahead of most public officials on support for marijuana policy reform." For the first time in four decades, a majority of Americans polled by Pew Research support legalizing recreational marijuana use; larger majorities support medicinal consumption.

In theory, significant lags between political actions of public preferences should be rare in a democracy. But on issues including marriage equality and marijuana legalization, generational differences between citizens and their elected officials often cause generation-based lags.

Older Americans are far less supportive than middle-age or younger voters of reforming drug use and possession laws. Although support for legalizing marijuana is trending upward across all age groups, 64 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 support it — almost twice the rate (33 percent) of those 65 and older. Support among Americans aged 30 to 64 falls in the middle at 54 percent.

These age differences wouldn't matter if our national and state legislatures looked more like the overall population. But the elected officials are older, on average, than the citizens they purport to represent.

According to the National Conference of State Legislators, 71 percent of state legislators nationwide are 50 or over. In the U.S. Congress, the mean age is 57 in the House and 62 in the Senate. But less than a third of the U.S. population is 50 or over.

So cheers to baby boomer Allan Kittleman and nonagenarian John Paul Stevens for siding with the future over the past.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is Twitter: @schaller67.

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