Pot Tolerance Hits a High

Follow-up on Reason's June 1993 cover story


In 1977 the cannabis scholar Lester Grinspoon predicted that pot would be legal within a decade. As I noted in "Selling Pot," a June 1993 story about the marijuana reform movement, Grinspoon's optimism seemed justified at the time by various indicators of growing tolerance, including a Gallup poll finding that 28 percent of Americans favored legalization.

Today surveys commonly put that number at 40 percent or more. This shift in opinion reflects the experiences of Americans born after World War II, most of whom, according to survey data, have tried pot. As a result, marijuana is more mainstream than it was when the president's drug czar thought nothing of attending a party thrown by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Since 1996, 14 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical purposes, and campaigns for similar reforms are active in several other states. While the reformers I interviewed in 1993 disagreed about how medical availability would affect the drive for full legalization, it seems to have helped normalize marijuana by bringing users and sellers out in the open. In California, the first state to allow medical use, polls indicate majority support for a 2010 ballot initiative that would legalize pot for general use by adults.

Another facet of the cannabis reform movement, the hemp industry, has taken off since I discussed it in 1993, despite vigorous opposition from drug warriors. The industry, with annual sales of about $360 million in North America, offers legal products—bags, clothing, toiletries, and food—that carry an implicit message about cannabis yet can be purchased and consumed with plausible deniability.

The significance of these signs should not be exaggerated. Police in the U.S. made about 848,000 marijuana arrests in 2008, down only slightly from a peak of 873,000 the previous year. Like his two immediate predecessors, Barack Obama is a former pot smoker. But he felt compelled to repudiate his support for decriminalization when he ran for president, and he has yet to deliver on his promise to stop raiding medical marijuana providers.

But if Grinspoon had grounds for optimism in 1977, reformers today may have more. "There has been a long, slow-moving upward trend in favor of legalization since roughly 1992," writes polling analyst Nate Silver, who predicts that support could hit 60 percent by the early '20s.