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A Majority In U.S. Favor Legal Pot, But Will That Stick?

Partiers celebrate marijuana legalization in Washington state at a pot party in Seattle earlier this month.
Elaine Thompson
Partiers celebrate marijuana legalization in Washington state at a pot party in Seattle earlier this month.

As we near the end of 2013, NPR is taking a look at the numbers that tell the story of this year. They're numbers that, if you really understand them, give insight into the world we live in.

This year, for the first time, national polls show a majority of Americans support the legalization of marijuana. Gallup has been asking the question for four decades, and now it says 58 percent favor legalization.

Colorado and Washington legalized recreational marijuana in November 2012, and the two states have spent the past year setting up the rules for new, legal markets.

"Marijuana is now normal. It's normal in Colorado and Washington, and I think it'll soon be normal in most other states," says Keith Stroup, a founder of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

NORML started pushing for legalization back in 1970. "And at the time, only 12 percent of the American public supported it, so we knew it was a formidable task at the time," says Stroup. "We didn't know it was going to take 43 years."

The challenge, of course, has been winning over the majority of people who don't use marijuana and don't plan to. Stroup thinks that was accomplished in part by the medical marijuana movement. It rebranded pot, moving it off the street corner and into benign-looking dispensaries with green crosses in the windows. Eventually, pot even became a topic for foodies.

Soon after legalization last December, Seattle public radio station KUOW was chatting with chefs about how they use marijuana as an ingredient. They described the care they take in not overcooking it (lest you boil off the THC), and how to highlight weed's subtler flavors — such as grapefruit.

But this mainstreaming of marijuana hasn't been all sweetness and light. Even as marijuana advocates celebrate, there are signs of discontent. The rise of marijuana edibles, for instance, has caused some accidents.

"Cookies were probably the biggest thing. There was a cake, there was a candy," says Dr. George Sam Wang, a pediatrician in the Denver area. After medical marijuana took off in Colorado, he documented a jump in the number of children coming into the ER after eating pot-laced food.

"These products that these kids are getting into, that you can buy in the medical marijuana community right now, they're not meant for one serving, and they say it all over the package," he says. "But they're pretty small; they look like a normal candy bar, and [if] a child gets into it, they're going to eat the whole thing."

That's one good example of how cultural norms maybe haven't caught up with the new reality. A lot of people no longer feel the need to hide their pot, but should they really keep it out in the open? Should it be acceptable to bake marijuana into perfect replicas of Goldfish crackers?

Wang suggests child-resistant packaging as one way to coexist with legal pot.

But there are still plenty of people who are in no mood to start making accommodations for the new culture.

Last week in Pierce County, in supposedly pot-friendly Washington state, the County Council voted to bar state-licensed pot stores from rural parts of the county.

"Marijuana is illegal anywhere in the United States of America, and until our Congress changes that, it will continue to be illegal," said council Chairwoman Joyce McDonald.

Council member Jim McCune lamented the legitimization of marijuana.

"I grew up in that culture, and it's a terrible culture to be in. If you grew up like I did, you wouldn't want it in your house or around your yard or in the society," McCune says.

NORML's Stroup is well aware of opinions like this, and he worries about a backlash. One reason he's worried is the new fad of marijuana concentrates — the oils and syrups that are dozens of times stronger than any bud. They're being legalized now alongside more traditional marijuana, and he sees a risk.

"Let's give it a few years and see how we feel about those concentrates. I would personally have no need for them, and I suspect most other marijuana smokers wouldn't either," he says.

It wouldn't be the first time he's seen a backlash: In the '70s, things were looking good, too — a number of states decriminalized pot. And then, he says, things stalled.

"The last of the 11 states to decriminalize marijuana was Nebraska in 1978. We did not win another single statewide victory in this country until 1996 — 18 years later," Stroup says.

The lesson? Public opinion can turn on you, as it did during the Reagan years. Stroup believes the cultural shift is more lasting this time, but if legalization isn't handled responsibly, he says a backlash is still possible.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.