Is the Drug War Almost Over? Half of Americans Support Legal Marijuana

Seven in 10 say doctors should be able to prescribe cannabis. It's only a matter of time before a presidential candidate sides against prohibition.

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Asked in 1995 to comment on the War on Drugs, William F. Buckley told the New York Bar Association that perhaps it should be ended. Waging it seemed to him counterproductive and unjust. "It is outrageous to live in a society whose laws tolerate sending young people to life in prison because they grew, or distributed, a dozen ounces of marijuana," he stated. And the magazine he founded soon followed suit. In 1996, National Review published a brave editorial declaring that "the war on drugs has failed," adding that "we all agree on movement toward legalization, even though we may differ on just how far." It was brave because just one in four Americans favored legalizing marijuana back then, and most of them weren't movement conservatives.

Today 50 percent of Americans favor legalizing marijuana, according to a new poll released by Gallup. That's a milestone. Among liberals, 69 percent want to end prohibition. Just 34 percent of conservatives agree. The prohibitionist cause is nevertheless doomed by demographics. "Support for legalizing marijuana is directly and inversely proportional to age," Gallup reports, "ranging from 62 percent approval among those 18 to 29 down to 31 percent among those 65 and older." The only question is how many more lives prohibition will destroy over how many years before voters end it.

If current trends persist, full legalization of marijuana will be a presidential issue as soon as Election 2016. And if the Republican nominee in 2012 is savvy, he'll take advantage of this information: "A Gallup survey last year found that 70 percent favored making it legal for doctors to prescribe marijuana in order to reduce pain and suffering. Americans have consistently been more likely to favor the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes than to favor its legalization generally."

It isn't just that almost any 70-30 issue is useful for a candidate trying to tack to the center and appeal to independents; this issue is particularly exploitable because in 2008 President Obama signaled to medical marijuana supporters that he'd leave them alone in states where the substance was legal. As Jacob Sullum reports in his Reason magazine piece, Bummer: Barack Obama Turns Out To Be Just Another Drug Warrior:

Campaigning in New Hampshire during the summer of 2007, he said raiding patients who use marijuana as a medicine "makes no sense" and is "really not a good use of Justice Department resources." In a March 2008 interview with southern Oregon's Mail Tribune, he went further, saying, "I'm not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue." Two months later, when another Oregon paper, Willamette Week, asked Obama whether he would "stop the DEA's raids on Oregon medical marijuana growers," he replied, "I would, because I think our federal agents have better things to do."

Even after he took office, it appeared as though he'd keep his word. "Yet the DEA's raids continued. If anything, the pace picked up," Sullum wrote. "In fact, medical marijuana raids have been more frequent under Obama than under Bush ... The administration's position, essentially, is that patients can have marijuana; they just can't get it anywhere." You'd think that his rivals could exploit this -- a broken promise on an issue with appeal to independents and young voters, one that would alienate some liberals from Obama, but that had the approval of Buckley, the leading intellectual light of the modern conservative movement, and National Review too.

True, Mitt Romney is firmly opposed to medical marijuana. But analysis of previous stances he's taken on matters of public policy suggest that he is sometimes willing to change his mind. Rick Perry says states should be permitted to decide about medical marijuana for themselves (but favors constitutional amendments to prevent the exercise of some such rights). Herman Cain has taken no position, and Ron Paul and Gary Johnson both favor ending the War on Drugs -- a stance that hurts them among a majority of GOP voters, who've managed to persuade themselves that they can be prohibitionists and uphold a philosophy of limited government. In an election where seven in 10 voters want medical marijuana legalized, can the bipartisan consensus against it hold? If so, support for full legalization will perhaps be even stronger in 2016.

Image credit: Reuters