Keith Stroup didn’t think he’d live to see the day when two of California’s largest newspapers publicly endorsed the full legalization of marijuana.
For the founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), these “significant stamps of approval” from the editorial boards of the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle in recent weeks made one thing clear: “We are winning the fight.”
“In the past when we’ve had legalization initiatives on the ballot… we win them despite the opposition of most of the local and state-elected officials, and certainly with editorial opposition from the major papers,” Stroup, 72, told Civilized.
“When your major newspapers begin embracing it and calling for legalization to move forward… it’s an indication that this has become an acceptable mainstream issue, an alternative policy that’s no longer considered radical.”
It’s a far cry from the days of Reefer Madness and America’s War on Drugs through which Stroup’s generation grew up, and a staggering indication of just how much the culture around cannabis has shifted even since NORML was established in 1970.
So what exactly has changed, according to Stroup? In large part, it comes down to the ever-crumbling stigma around cannabis and the consequent groundswell of support from America’s non-smoking public – particularly its youth, who grew up without Reefer Madness consciously or subconsciously informing their opinions about marijuana use.
“When it gets down to it, the reason we are winning is because we’ve finally won the hearts and minds of a majority of the American public, despite the fact that only about 14 or 15 percent of that public are current smokers,” said Stroup.
“[It used to be] that most non-smokers either weren’t that familiar with marijuana or had an exaggerated view of the potential dangers of marijuana smoking and legalization. Today what we have is a population of non-smokers who have realized that prohibition is a failed public policy.”
What this means, said Stroup, is that a significant portion of the American public stand behind full legalization – national polls show between 55 and 61 percent of Americans now support it – not necessarily because they are pro-marijuana, but “because they’re anti-prohibition.”
The tide has shifted so dramatically in recent years, believes Stroup, that if enough states vote to legalize this November, there’s conceivably no going back.
“It certainly has the feel to it that we’re at the tipping point,” said Stroup.
“If we win California this year, and we almost certainly are going to [along with] probably two or three or maybe even four other states, I don’t see any possibility of the policy ever going backwards. I think it’s just a matter of, over the next five, six, seven years, legalizing marijuana in the rest of the states.”
This is partly because of the second-hand impacts of legalization felt by surrounding states every time a marijuana measure is passed, said Stroup.
“Every time a state legalizes marijuana, all the states in the surrounding area have to deal with that. They read about it and see their own residents crossing state lines to enjoy marijuana and giving tax money to that state. They see tens of thousands of new jobs being created in the legalized state but not in their state,” he said.
“Once we get over the idea that there’s something immoral about smoking marijuana, then the economic arguments become incredibly important.”
Of course, even if legalization does go through in several states this fall - California, Nevada, Arizona, Maine and Massachusetts are voting on adult use - and continues to gain traction across the country in years to come, Stroup says there’s still a lot of work to be done in terms of dismantling the long-held stigmas surrounding cannabis consumption.
Despite a number of illuminating surveys conducted in recent years – including one by Civilized this spring that found the majority of cannabis consumers are homeowners who are employed full-time and married with children – there still exists a lot of Cheech and Chong-inspired “baggage”, says Stroup.
“Those people who wear suits and ties and go to work every morning, they can’t come out [as cannabis consumers] because in most cases they would be fired… so what you’re left with, the most visible segment of the marijuana smoking public, tend to be people on the fringes, in the counterculture, people who may fit the stereotype,” said Stroup.
“As a result, a lot of non-smokers don’t realize their next-door neighbour or the person working in the cubicle next to him at the office may be a marijuana smoker when he goes home at night… There’s a lot of cleaning up to do after 80 years of prohibition and it wont happen overnight – despite the fact that we are clearly winning the fight.”
Editor's note: As Civilized celebrates one year of publishing, we're reflecting on the stories and issues that resonated most with our audience in the past 12 months. This is one of series of posts that includes founder and publisher Derek Riedle's commentary, A Year Of Elevating Cannabis Culture.