What marijuana legalization hopes to learn from marriage equality

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Daniel Medina wrote an article for Quartz on July 30 comparing gay marriage to marijuana. The analogy piqued my interest. (Full disclosure: I believe both should be legalized). They’re hot topics, with marriage equality gaining momentum around the country and marijuana garnering a barrage of editorials from the New York Times. They are also issues that tend to draw support from a liberal, millennial demographic. Beyond that, how similar are they?

Quite a bit, as it turns out. Eighteen years ago, both marriage equality and marijuana legalization had about 25 percent of the country’s support. Today, same sex marriage is recognized by 19 states plus the District of Columbia, while marijuana has only been legalized in two. While only a marginal majority of Americans—54 percent, according to the Pew Research Center—support marriage equality, this includes “America’s richest and most politically influential people and corporations.” In contrast, a Gallup poll in October showed that 58 percent of Americans support marijuana legalization, but not a single member of Congress is (openly) a recreational pot smoker.  

The question Medina poses is: Why did LGBT rights take off while marijuana legalization did not?

The answer is money.

LGBT supporters gave more than $6 million to political campaigns in 2012, and whenever the issue has come to ballot, substantial amounts have been raised as well. 

However, the difference is much more than that. Equal rights are intrinsic to America’s identity. The country was founded with the credo “all men are declared equal,” and even today, those words seem as self-evident as they did two and a half centuries ago. The same laws should be applicable to all people.

When marijuana was criminalized, Harry Jacob Anslinger of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics paved the way by arguing it caused insanity and “pushed people toward horrendous acts of criminality.” By contrast, today the arguments to decriminalize marijuana are matters of medicine or recreation. And that is much harder to get passionate about than a person’s inalienable rights. The money coming into the movement for equal rights come in part because people feel strongly about it.

Two events that are useful to look back on are the women’s suffrage movement and the civil rights movement. Women before the vote were most definitely not America’s most politically influential people, and African Americans were not America’s richest. How they swayed the public opinion was not through money, but through their conviction. 

Even for marriage equality, many campaign contributions are not made by same sex couples, but by people who support gay marriage on principle. For example, one of the hefty contributors to marriage equality was Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and his wife MacKenzie, who gave $2.5 billion on July 27. They are neither openly gay nor openly recreational marijuana users. But LGBT rights was an issue that touched their hearts. As their spokesperson said, “It’s a personal decision, and Jeff and Mackenzie feel strongly about the issue.”

The collective power wielded by supporters of LGBT rights may also sway politicians and corporations. So far, recreational marijuana smokers have not proven that they will mobilize for or against politicians and corporations based on the issue of legalization.

All of these reasons contribute to the different trajectories marriage equality and marijuana legalization have taken since 1996. And this can be seen in some of the new arguments proposed by proponents of marijuana. Part of what the New York Times’ editorial series has been trying to do is rebrand marijuana as a social issue. When discussing the criminal justice and history of marijuana’s criminalization, the paper points out, “The law enforcement view of marijuana was indelibly shaped by the fact that it was initially connected to brown people from Mexico and subsequently with black and poor communities in this country.” Today, the American Civil Liberties Union reports, “marijuana use is roughly equal among blacks and whites,” but blacks are almost four times as likely to get arrested in the United States for marijuana-related charges (in Iowa, they are more than eight times as likely). 

Senator Ted Cruz explained his reputation as one of the country’s best appellate litigators through his ability to frame a debate. He told the New Yorker, “First you win the argument, then you win the vote.” Mad Men’s Don Draper put it a different way: “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” Protests that marijuana is better for you than alcohol are not gaining traction in Congress and courtrooms. Proponents should look to the successes of the LGBT rights movement. Framing the conversation as one about the dangerous vestige of racism rather than about the benefits of a drug will hit harder for most people. It could connect marijuana with civil rights groups, and mobilize people and politicians to support change.

If so, perhaps there is hope for equality in America after all.

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