In February, Silver looked at the results of three polls (Rasmussen, CBS, Zogby) on fivethirtyeight.com, each of which found 40 percent or more of respondents supporting legalization. That "may be significant" he allowed, but cautioned against over-exuberance. None of this promises upward movement.
"On issues like this, yes, there are trends, but they're not necessarily inevitable," he says now. "If you were looking at the world in the 1960s, you may well have guessed that, by 2009, you'd be able to smoke pot legally."
But that didn't happen. After the '70s came the '80s. A crack epidemic. A crime wave. Nancy Reagan and "Just Say No." Moods can change. And if the pot issue moves unduly forward, wonders Silver, "Will the Republicans try to create a backlash on that and say, 'We've gone too far?' I think it's not totally out of the question, if the economy stays in the dumps for a period of months or years," he adds, "that the crime rate may increase again and that may work against legalization and harm that momentum a bit."
But generational shifts happen. And now, with most people under the age of 65 probably at least familiar with the pungent smoky odor, the trend should continue toward increased acceptance. Writing on fivethirtyeight.com, Silver predicted that "we'll need to see a supermajority of Americans" favoring legalization before politicians would be emboldened enough to press the issue.
He crunched the numbers and figured that, assuming the trend kept heading northward, we could reach 60 percent or so sometime in the next 13 years, predicts Silver. "I feel comfortable with 2022."
Trapped in the closet
BREATHE EASY: Seventeen years after Bill Clinton didn’t inhale, it seems everyone — from our president to Olympic champion Michael Phelps — has admitted to toking.
In the past decade and a half, 13 states have legalized medical marijuana, a steady drip that is somewhat analogous — in its suddenness and once-seeming-improbability — to the snowballing momentum of gay-marriage rulings over the past several months.
"There's a powerful analogy between the gay-rights movement and the marijuana-law-reform movement," says Nadelmann. "Part of it is about a principle — that people should not be punished for what they do in their own home or their own personal lives. The other point is that there's an element of 'coming out' that is pivotal to the whole process of decriminalizing and ultimately legalizing the behavior."
Atlantic writer Andrew Sullivan has done a fine job of hammering this point again and again over the past couple months on his blog The Daily Dish (andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com), both with his own thoughtful analysis and in a series of posts tagged "The Cannabis Closet," in which he publishes mostly anonymous responses from his readers. "Contract manager with a government agency [and] Treasurer for the PTA" one describes himself. "If I got busted, I'd lose a lot," writes another.
"I truly believe that if marijuana users felt as emboldened to come out as gay and lesbian people did some years ago," says Nadelmann, "marijuana prohibition would come crashing down very quickly." The problem is that "it's hard to get people to come out of the closet about something that does remain a crime."