Support for Pot Legalization Grows

In 1990, 16 percent of Americans supported legalization. Now the number is 61.


|||Katarzyna Bialasiewicz/
Katarzyna Bialasiewicz/

When a cannabis cooking show graces your Netflix suggestions, it's a pretty good indicator that national attitudes toward the substance are shifting. For an even bigger indicator, check out a recent poll by the University of Chicago's General Social Survey (GSS).

According to the survey, a record-breaking 61 percent of Americans believe that weed should be legalized. This number is considerably larger than the mere 16 percent who supported legalization in 1990.

Who specifically supports legalization? Well, just about everyone.

When the Pew Research Center reported similar percentages for support last year, it included a demographic breakdown. Most groups, regardless of race, education, or religious affiliation, expressed majority support for legalization. Those that did not were nearly evenly split on the issue.

As Reason's Steve Chapman observed in 2017, these ideas have become the political norm. Listing the reasons for the growing acceptance of marijuana, Chapman credited a better understanding of disproportionate arrests by race, access to propaganda-busting statistics about adolescent use and crime in legalization states, and even the ongoing opioid crisis.

Those 1990 results, by contrast, followed a decade of drug hysteria, overhyped anti-drug initiatives such as the DARE program, and increasingly harsh convictions for drug convictions, which contributed to the rapid growth of the prison population.

Unfortunately, in several states that have legalized recreational marijuana, governments have yet to fully bring the criminal justice system up to speed with the new laws. While states that are currently taking up legalization are adding provisions to forgive old drug convictions, states that adopted legalization earlier than others are only now addressing those who are still serving time for something that is no longer a crime. Washington, for example, became one of the first states to legalize recreational use in 2012. It wasn't until January of this year that Gov. Jay Inslee announced clemency for residents who had been convicted for possession—and even then, only if those convictions were misdemeanors.