Last October, 58 percent of Americans told Gallup they supported the legalization of marijuana. The figure was a record high. Yet the number may be misleading. If the previous half century is any guide, generational replacement has acted as a tidal rather than an unstoppable force on American attitudes about pot.
In the '70s, as the Baby Boomers came of age, the pro-pot tide rolled in. Eleven states, including California and Colorado, decriminalized it. And public support for full legalization doubled from 14 percent 1969 to 28 percent in 1977, according to Gallup.
But the pro-pot tide rolled out in the '80s and '90s. Baby Boomers didn't stay young forever. They got married and had kids. For parents who wanted their teenage children to go to college and grasped that doing well on the SAT was essential, allowing their young charges to live a Spicoli-like existence seemed like the height of irresponsibility.
Into this vacuum stepped Nancy Reagan’s campaign. At its height in the mid-'90s, the Just Say No Foundation had more than 1 million members and affiliates in 12 countries, according to Cohen. There was a theme song and an annual rally in May. In 1996, fewer Americans (25 percent) told Gallup they supported the legalization of the drug than in 1977 (28 percent). As Michael Massing, the author of The Fix, an acclaimed 1998 book on the drug wars, concluded, "Based on the numbers, Nancy Reagan's crusade against marijuana certainly seemed to be paying off."
So if middle-class moms’ aspiration for their children’s future in the meritocracy is a real factor, why have many parents stopped protesting pot?
One likely answer is they have less incentive to protest: Fewer high-school kids smoke regularly. In 1978, nearly two in five high-school seniors (37.1 percent) said they had used marijuana in the previous 30 days, according to the University of Michigan’s annual Monitoring the Future survey. Last year, barely more than one in five (22.7) said they had. This figure has changed little since the mid-'90s.
Another likely answer for the decline of the parents movement is the success of medical marijuana. Talk with anti-pot leaders, and to a person they say the advent of medical pot in the mid-'90s reoriented the debate. Sue Rusche, co-founder of National Families in Action, said the tide turned after “three billionaires stepped forward—George Soros, Peter Lewis, and John Sperling—and funded so-called medical marijuana.” Like Lowe and Cohen, Rusche suggested that medical marijuana changed the national conversation over weed from a behavioral issue involving teenagers to a quality-of-life one involving mostly adults.
The decline in teenagers' use from the 1970s and '80s has been mirrored in the movies. Take a list such as Yahoo's "Top 25 Stoner Films of All Time." The only two films that depicted high-school students pot use realistically either were set or filmed before the era of "Just Say No," not only Fast Times at Ridgemont High but also Dazed and Confused. Subsequent stoner films have portrayed characters after they graduate from high school, such as the two Harold and Kumar films.