Weed Week

Scofflaws Paved the Way for Legal Marijuana

Defying authoritarian laws helps to preserve freedom and to undermine prohibitions.

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Most Americans now favor legalizing marijuana, including large majorities across the political spectrum. Just this year, New Mexico, New York, and Virginia have eliminated state bans and opened the door to legal markets in the stuff. Even Congress is considering federal legalization (though the White House isn't necessarily on board). Via the ballot box and through legislation, authorities in the United States are reforming the treatment of marijuana and those who enjoy its use. But, as is so often the case, the impetus for change came much earlier—from scofflaws who did as they pleased, normalized the use of an illegal intoxicant, and revealed prohibition as unenforceable.

"Roughly half of adults (48%) say they have ever tried marijuana, the highest percentage ever," Pew reported in 2013 after Colorado and Washington became the first states to defy federal law and legalize marijuana for recreational use. "Just two years ago, 40% said they had tried marijuana. In both 2003 and 2001, 38% said they had used marijuana."

True, marijuana was available for medical use in a few states starting with the passage of California's Prop. 215 in 1996, and in some jurisdictions "medical" was generously interpreted. But it's obvious that marijuana was increasingly popular and ever-more widely accepted well before it was legally available even for nominally medicinal purposes.

"The possibility that marijuana use is on the rise is worrisome," fretted the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) in its 1994 Marijuana Situation Assessment. "Since marijuana is by far the most widely used illicit drug, small percentage increases in use mean that large numbers of Americans have crossed the line from not breaking the drug laws to breaking them."

What troubled the ONDCP was that 9 percent of respondents to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse admitted using marijuana in the previous year (a tighter measure than Pew's "ever tried" question) in 1993. About 16.5 percent of men between the ages of 18 and 25 said they'd used marijuana in the previous month. 

"One possibility is that marijuana use is a barometer of public attitudes about illicit drug use," mused the ONDCP. "If more people are smoking marijuana, it could reflect increased acceptance of illicit drug use in general."

It's fair to assume that more people were enjoying the illegal intoxicant as its use became more widely accepted, and that wider acceptance encouraged those so inclined to indulge. As people ignored the law, their actions normalized marijuana use and cast doubt on restrictive laws. Two years after the ONDCP report, California approved Prop. 215. Sixteen years after that, voters in Colorado and Washington swept away state laws against recreational marijuana. The feedback loop of scofflawry, normalization, and approval worked quite a bit of magic over those years.

To be honest, scofflaws have worked a lot of magic. In her 2005 book, Spirits of Defiance: National Prohibition and Jazz Age Literature, author Kathleen Drowne argued that mass resistance to the national ban on alcoholic beverages not only kneecapped the law, but also infused anti-authoritarianism into literature and the culture for years to follow. Likewise, gays and lesbians surreptitiously lived and loved when they were targeted by the law, and then famously (and righteously) stomped cops who raided the Stonewall Inn, ultimately precipitating liberalization. Gun laws have historically met widespread disobedience, keeping populations armed and politicians unhappy. And restrictions on exporting encryption were eased only after cryptographers illegally exported code—even printing it on T-shirts in acts of civil disobedience.

Willingness to break the law to do things that people know they have every right to do helps to make it acceptable for others to follow suit. As more people engage in illegal activities, those activities become less alien and threatening even to those who have no interest in joining the party and reveal legal restrictions as unenforceable. That makes it seem increasingly attractive to call off the cops and leave people alone to live their lives.

"Nearly 7 in 10 Americans (69–25 percent) think the use of marijuana should be made legal in the United States," say pollsters at Quinnipiac University. "The numbers among registered voters are similar (70–24 percent), and they mark a record level of support for marijuana legalization since Quinnipiac University began polling on this issue in December of 2012." The poll finds that legalization is nonpartisan (almost a political unicorn in today's polarized America) enjoying the favor of 78 percent of Democrats, 62 percent of Republicans, and 67 percent of independents.

Support for legalization rose through the decades of prohibition as Americans ignored the law in growing numbers. According to Gallup, the percentage of the population advocating for marijuana legalization rose slowly but steadily from 12 percent in 1972 to its current large majority. The shift in public opinion picked up steam in recent years as states moved to reform their laws, but there would have been little constituency for legalization if millions of Americans hadn't already been doing as they pleased without regard for the legal status of marijuana.

Scofflawry still does good work in a world of legal, but often rules-bound, marijuana sales. Though Massachusetts has legalized weed, state officials predictably burdened the market with red tape and high taxes. The result is that the state still enjoys a thriving black market.

"An estimated 68 percent of Massachusetts marijuana sales this year have taken place outside of the state-regulated market, according to an analysis done for CommonWealth by cannabis market research firm BDSA," the magazine reported in November 2020. "Britte McBride, a member of the state Cannabis Control Commission … said Massachusetts's high prices are somewhat unavoidable because of the cost of complying with strict state regulations on security, testing, packaging, and labeling."

Lingering black markets elsewhere spurred officials to reduce regulations and lower taxes so that legal dealers can successfully offer consumers the prices and convenience offered by underground competitors. Massachusetts officials may be learning similar lessons: They agreed to allow home delivery of marijuana.

Marijuana prohibition is on its way out after years of fading support and rising defiance, largely courtesy of those who ignored the law. But other authoritarian restrictions remain, and others will undoubtedly emerge from the creative imaginations of those attracted to government office. The harm they do can best be minimized, and ultimately ended, by further acts of scofflawry.

NEXT: The Return of Reefer Madness in the GOP

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  1. I would suggest that the move toward marijuana legalization has less to do with “freedom” and more to do with the government scratching for sources of revenue, adding to the copious evidence that your average legislator is an amoral scumbag willing to sell his mother for a nickel.

    1. Except SleepyJoe. He don’t like the marijuana’s. His laughing hyena sidekick likes because she can throw people in jail for it.

      1. She can also listen to rappers 10 years before they create anything.

        1. Only when she under the influence of the pretend blunt she pretended to smoke.

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    2. What politician would not like an injection of billions of dollars? Check out Colorado’s numbers. The dispensaries sponsor highways now.

      1. Of course with half the population high on weed and a significant portion of illegal immigrants drunk no one can drive safely on the beautiful highways.

    3. I think the revenue angle is right on. If I’m not mistaken this is how Colorado advocates of legalization sold the voters of that state on the idea. Money for the politicians and more money for so-called weed entrepreneurs.

    4. Isn’t that the honest truth? Revenue has never been higher than tax exacted for liquor, cigarettes and now marijuana. Incidentally, the doobie of your youth is not the same nowadays. The potency is RADICALLY higher. Weed is easier to use than alcohol virtually anywhere including on the job. I suppose we didn’t have enough problems with alcohol so we had to legalize marijuana and cover it with a blanket of medical necessity. It’s a scam. I don’t want stoners driving my kid’s school bus, running heavy machinery, practicing medicine, handling nuclear functions, etc… But it’s legal. Up to the individual businesses to do the right thing (like no drinking/stoning on the job) – just like enforcing wearing masks during global pandemics or dealing with states enacting laws to suppress voting.

      1. And so the best solution to those problems is curtailment of liberty for everybody? Surely that policy won’t have any repercussions itself. I guess we’re just a little more enforcement of prohibition away from sober Shangri-La.

  2. “Defying authoritarian laws helps to preserve freedom and to undermine prohibitions.”

    Precisely.

    My favorite example is undocumented immigrants. They defy the alt-right white nationalist policy of “border enforcement” because they embrace the fundamental, non-negotiable principle of Koch / Reason libertarianism. Namely, that anyone on the planet has a human right to move to the US at any time and for any reason.

    #ImmigrationAboveAll

    1. The problem with that assertion is that all laws become ‘authoritarian’ with the right support; e.g. BLM, LGBT etc etc.

  3. laws are laws and we have to respect it as bob marly said
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    1. I’m for changing laws through the system we have set up but it appears the MJ laws were changed legally because people were prepared to act illegally at all times.

      1. Now that it’s legal in some states, those who grow their own can sell their surplus as a cottage industry too because the licensed providers are WAY more costly. Street dope is less than half the cost of designer pharmaceutical MJ.

  4. “Defying authoritarian laws helps to preserve freedom and to undermine prohibitions.”

    Unless you’re trespassing on public property, in which case libertarian publications will sometimes join in the media narrative–about how shooting unarmed protesters is entirely justified as a means to protect the electoral legitimacy of the authoritarian in-chief.

    1. InSuRrEcTiOn!

      1. Not sure if you’re saying it’s okay but if you are then in that case one man’s law is the cause of another man’s insurrection. Let the games begin!

        1. It is so game on. The first to plead guilty reap the biggest rewards. Oath Keeper Jon Ryan Shaeffer turnin’ on his own to save his skin…https://www.cnn.com/2021/04/16/politics/oath-keepers-capitol-guilty-plea-schaffer/index.html

  5. >>Defying authoritarian laws helps to preserve freedom and to undermine prohibitions.

    knew we’d agree on something one day.

    1. Also lands you in jail.

  6. Exactly why you should defy mask mandates and other ‘rona diktats. If we don’t, they’ll be with us forever.

  7. Or, as Homer would say:

    “Remember, honey… we’re disobeying an unjust law here. We’re patriots, like… all those people in jail.”

    1. who wants a bathtub mint julep?

    2. …overheard from behind bars through an air vent…

  8. We have skyrocketing levels of crime and depression. 30 trillion dollars of debt. Fiscally, monetarially and civil liberties wise, the US and state governments have gone completely off the rails. We are on the path to turn the world’s reserve currency into the Bolivar. We have huge and growing infringements on the right to self defense. A culture that is completely abandoning free speech and open debate in favor of woke mob rule thought crime community policing that is rapidly approaching the point of popularity to be codifed into law. Our education system is so bad and run by activists pretending to be teachers that half the youth tody think communism is a good idea. The constitution is now an absolutely meaningless relic of history. We have 1 party that controls the whole of the federal government after a questionable election that is doing everything in it’s power to make it as easy as possible to defraud elections in the future to solidify their permanent rule.
    I think the country has much bigger fish to fry than minor injustices involving somebody toking up. Both reason and to a lesser extent libertarians need to stop spending so much effort on this issue as it delegitmizes and stereotypes libertarians as potheads. Legal drugs should be tolerated, but not celebrated or be a main pillar of the libertarian platform. Ron Paul recognized this.

    1. Ron Paul…business acumen and government are two entirely different things.

    2. You could just stop consuming right-wing media.

      You’ll feel a fuck of a lot better, I swear.

      I stopped watching the news altogether and I’ve never been happier. Granted, not having an erratic psychopathic moron and king of the right-wing militias in charge of the nuclear arsenal makes that more of an option.

      1. Great response Tony. You didn’t dispute a single one of my higher priority concerns about the state and direction of the country. And you didn’t offer so much as an opinion about the importance of weed legalization as opposed to other priorities.
        FYI, I don’t watch Fox News and didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 or 2020, so you’re even off base with your stupid cookie cutter right wing clinger insults. Go comment at Vox or something, over there people will appreciate your point of view and will equal your intellect (or lack thereof).

  9. Everyone should be prepared for the likelihood that, as the taboos around cannabis are erased, more scientific research will happen, and it will likely not find that cannabis is without negative health consequences.

    For example, all of my memories are pretty hazy, from childhood to yesterday, and I’m pretty sure it’s not natural causes.

    Not that it’s a totally bad thing. I’m a ruminator, so there is some benefit to snuffing out the past.

  10. The hurdle now is, to get Democrats to think of guns as they do joints, and AR15’s like they do bongs.

  11. Of course with half the population high on weed and a significant portion of illegal immigrants drunk no one can drive safely on the beautiful highways.

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  12. nice great post

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