Reading a Pew Research Center study about Americans and marijuana, I was surprised how rapidly support for legalization rose, and to what heights. From 16 percent support in 1989 edging up to 32 percent at the turn of the century and then soaring to 89 percent by 2019. Fifty-nine percent say it should be legal for medical and recreational use, 30 percent for medical use only.
A majority of all age groups except the over-75s agreed the drug should be legal for recreational use with Republicans more wary than Democrats, and Hispanics and Asians more wary than Whites and Blacks. About half say they have used marijuana compared to 78 percent who have consumed alcohol or 57 percent who have used tobacco products.
Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have legalized small amounts of marijuana for recreational use and half of Americans now live in a jurisdiction where it’s legal.
It remains completely illegal under federal law, still classified as a Schedule I drug, the same as heroin and LSD and higher than fentanyl and meth. President Biden has, however, directed his administration to review the classification, and has decided to pardon people convicted of marijuana possession federally. This is consistent with the American public, two-thirds of whom favour releasing people from prison who are being held solely for marijuana-related offences.
Seeing this remarkable conversion one can not help but think of all the unnecessary suffering and expense that has been caused by this component of the drug war, all for naught.
And this aside from the potential for good the drug offers but was for so long disregarded. It has a number of medical applications. People who could have benefitted have suffered needlessly and of course the illegality prevented research that could have added even more benefits, to say nothing of a better understanding of its harms. It is particularly disturbing to think of how much suffering may have been avoided if the drug had been available for pain rather than opioids.
Canada, too, was long on the wrong path. In our favour, however, we never engaged in quite the incarceration binge the Americans did, and we were the second country to legalize pot (Uruguay was the first).
Marijuana is one of the more innocuous recreational drugs, so our experience with it may have limited lessons about how to deal with others. However, considering the miserable failure of the drug war it may at least indicate a more constructive and less harmful direction.