Victory in the drug war?

Don’t miss a piece in Vox this week by German Lopez, in which he declares victory in the United States’ war over marijuana legalisation:

At this point, the question of nationwide marijuana legalization is more a matter of when, not if. At least two-thirds of the American public support the change, based on various public opinion surveys in recent years. …

The walls are closing in on this issue for legalization opponents — and quickly.

Recreational use of marijuana is still illegal under federal legislation and in about two-thirds of the states. But Lopez is right about the momentum. Legalisation is winning almost all of its battles, and there’s no sign of anything that’s likely to stop the trend: on the contrary, as he points out, there are now powerful vested interests supporting further progress.

It’s very much reminiscent of the position that same-sex marriage was in a decade or so ago. I wrote about the analogy at the time, noting in 2013 that “both issues have been on a similar trajectory for about the last twenty years, with the drug issue playing catch up.” I also noted some differences between them, in an effort to explain why, at that time, drug legalisation had had much less legislative success.

One was the fact that there were powerful economic interests (particularly the alcohol industry) opposed to marijuana legalisation. That turns out to have been only a short-term problem; once the pot industry had established a foothold, the economic arguments started to run in its favor. The fact that the progressive side of politics is much more comfortable with capitalism than it was a few decades ago probably helped.

Another difference is the greater complexity of the drugs debate. Everyone knew what marriage was, and it was just a matter of admitting gay people to an existing status. Drug legalisation, however, involves many possible competing models, with a range of different issues to deal with. But that too seems to have been a short-term concern. A few states tried it, it worked, and others were able to build on their experience.

Since so much of the opposition to drug liberalisation, unlike in the case of same-sex marriage, made empirical claims about the harm that would supposedly result, they were left more at a loss when those claims were falsified by experience. And while the strongest opponents were probably never really motivated by the empirical argument, some were, and were honest enough to change their minds.

An important step, which Lopez mentions only in passing, was the legalisation in many states of the medical use of marijuana, which often operated as a back door to recreational use. This helped to undermine the arguments of the drug’s opponents, and also gave marijuana a new positive image; it was something that actually helped people, not just a way to turn on and drop out.

Perhaps the most interesting difference appears when you look not just at the last twenty years of public opinion, but go back a bit further. Since the issues first came on the radar in the 1960s, progress on gay rights has been steady; there was never a point when the trend in public attitudes went into reverse. But marijuana was not like that: as Lopez’s graph shows, there was a distinct period of reaction in the late twentieth century. Support for legalisation in the late 1990s was still lower than it had been twenty years earlier.

In this respect, gay rights is the odd issue out. The anti-liberalisation trend that developed in the US from the mid- to late 1970s applied across a range of social issues, including capital punishment, women’s rights and reproductive freedom. Only relatively recently have attitudes returned to something more like what they were in the early ’70s.

It’s common to hear on the political right the view that the left has enjoyed unbroken success in its social agenda. The truth is a good deal more complicated; in most states it is probably harder to get an abortion now than it was forty years ago. The right’s narrative of victimhood may be more about disappointed hopes, in which its attempts to roll back social progress enjoyed initial success that could not be sustained.

But – and this is the final difference – only in America. In most other western democracies, the success that gay rights enjoyed in the US was typical rather than exceptional. There was never any significant rollback of other social progress: abortion stayed legal, capital punishment didn’t return, women’s equality was unquestioned. Drug prohibition remained a partial exception, even though it was rarely as savage as it was in the US.

So while same-sex marriage involved America mostly just catching up with its peers, in the marijuana debate it is striking out at the head of the pack. A number of countries have (either officially or de facto) decriminalised personal use, but among major democracies only Canada and South Africa have moved to full legalisation. Even New Zealand, not usually a bastion of reaction, voted narrowly against legalisation in a referendum last year.

Despite the long history of American exceptionalism, it’s possible that the secure establishment of legal marijuana there would be difficult for other countries (including Australia, which of course lagged on same-sex marriage as well) to ignore. It’s also possible that the same overdue logic will flow through to the rest of the drugs debate, although so far the signs of that are difficult to discern.

3 thoughts on “Victory in the drug war?

  1. My anecdotal impression is that HIV-AIDs in the mid-1980s caused a short-term reversal in support for gay rights. Arguments in the Sixties and Seventies had focused on the question of “If you’re not a religious conservative or fundamentalist, whom does this hurt?” and this had powerful appeal. But then, the emergence of a (then) incurable and fatal disease changed the equation. Two consenting adults freely agreeing to have sex without a condom could increase the death toll. This wasn’t about making baby Jesus cry, it was about a palpable and lethal harm that was primarily devastating the gay community itself (which is probably why attitudes were often ambivalent, eg Randy Shilts’ support to close SF’s bathhouses and some, not all, LGBT organisations going along with blood-donation bans).
    There was bad faith on both sides. The far Right invoked HIV-AIDs as an excuse to discriminate against gays in general (even in contexts where exchange of bodily fluids was not an issue) or even to re-criminalise homosexuality. This definitely hindered attempts to repeal existing criminalisation laws in Queensland and Tasmania, where I was living at the time. The Left, on the other hand, played the usual pea-and-thimble game it plays with general rules – “You can’t assume all gay men have HIV-AIDS, or that everyone with HIV-AIDS is gay. So bans on gay men are stereotyping..” “Fine then, we’ll revise the ban so it only covers individuals who actually have HIV-AIDS.” “No, that’s indirect discrimination, because HIV-AIDS is more closely correlated to gay men than to other demographics”.. Rinse and repeat…
    As I said, I was living in a conservative area at the time where there seemed to have been some progress towards LGBT acceptance in the Seventies – once it was associated with Patrick White, Molly Meldrum and Sir Robert Helpmann rather than Dr Frank’n’furter – so maybe the 1980s backlash I perceived was localised. But the emergence of HIV-AIDS certainly gave fresh ammunition to those who had never supported LGBT rights.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Elizabeth – that’s an interesting point. My impression is that progress slowed in the mid- to late ’80s for exactly that reason (both here and in the US), but I don’t have the feeling that it ever went into reverse. It’d be interesting to see some hard data on that. Certainly the backlash was relatively short-lived; by the early ’90s the anti-gay forces were definitely on the back foot – which didn’t happen with drugs (or for that matter capital punishment in the US) until much later.


  2. Anecdotal but on this topic:
    “… I’m not exactly sure what the official status of [Elton] John’s sexual identity was in 1983. According to Wikipedia, he officially came out as a gay man in 1988. The early 1980s was a period of rapid retreat back into the closet for many music stars because of the conservative political mood, the AIDS crisis, and the commercial pressures of MTV. John had used the word “bisexual” to describe himself in a Rolling Stone article in 1976. In the 1980s however he married a woman, some hot fashion model. I suspect this is an example of bearding, a Bowie-esque renunciation of his previous sexual identity explained away as decadent experimentation…” (blog by Craig M Loftin, teaches in the American Studies Department at Cal State Fullerton, author of “Masked Voices: Gay Men and Lesbians in Cold War America” and editor of “Letters to ONE: Gay and Lesbian Voices from the 1950s and 1960s”, PhD in History from the University of Southern California.

    Liked by 1 person

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