“Hard, Vague, Dim” Views on Marijuana Legalization

Most views in the marijuana legalization debate can be described as “hard, vague, and dim,” said Mark Kleiman, a University of California, Los Angeles public policy professor, at an event on Tuesday hosted by the American Enterprise Institute.

People tend to have hard views on both sides of the debate on legalizing marijuana, strongly in favor or against, Kleiman said. Their views are often vague; they can’t specify what legalization entails—what rules do they favor on taxation, distribution, and marketing? Should legalization take place state-by-state or nationwide? And their views tend to be “dim,” Kleiman said, citing what he said were exaggerated claims about the number of people arrested for marijuana possession and the amount of marijuana imported.

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The book comes just months before voters in three states—Washington, Oregon, and Colorado—will decide whether to legalize marijuana. If voters approve the ballot initiatives this November, their states will become the first to legalize the drug. A comparison of the three states’ measures can be found on the National Cannabis Coalition’s Website.

Several states, counties, and cities have already decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. But decriminalization and legalization are very different, Beau Kilmer, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and a co-author of the book, noted at the event. Legalization allows the production and distribution of marijuana, in addition to possession.

Seventeen states have legalized medical marijuana, beginning with California in 1996, even though marijuana remains illegal under federal law. The federal government effectively outlawed marijuana through the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, though it permitted medical use. The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act in 1970 stated that marijuana had no medical use. The Supreme Court ruled in Gonzales vs. Raich (2005) that medical marijuana laws such as California’s contravened federal law.

Legalization would reduce the cost of producing marijuana, Kilmer said, since compensation for undertaking an illegal activity would no longer exist. Lower cost would cause an increase in consumption of the substance, Kilmer said, noting that numbers for that increase remain speculative.

Every previous attempt at legalization has failed, but support for making marijuana legal has never been higher than it is today. Jonathan P. Caulkins, a public policy professor at Carnegie Mellon University and co-author of the book, cited a May 12 Rasmussen poll that showed 56 percent of voters nationwide support legalizing and regulating marijuana, with 36 percent against. (Forty-two percent of Americans say they have used it, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.)

Even if all three ballot initiatives fail, the trend line in public opinion is clear: In 1969, when Gallup first asked Americans about legalizing marijuana, 84 percent said they opposed it and 12 percent favored it. As legalization become more likely, a “softer, clearer, more enlightened” discussion, to paraphrase Kleiman, will be more consequential than ever.

Minjae Park

Minjae Park is an intern at the Washington Monthly.