There are "millions of Americans who smoke marijuana for whom it's not a problem, who are part of the middle class, who are well-off, who are role models," says Mirken. Most people know this. Yet still the caricature persists of the feckless stoner, slack-jawed and speckled with Pringles crumbs.
As long as the sorts of people who write into Sullivan's blog can't come out and correct that stereotype — as Mirken says, "The only people who end up coming out are the ones who show up at the hemp fests and get in trouble" — the battle for wider acceptance will be a hard slog.
Slowly, state by state, that may be changing. One Massachusetts reader e-mailed the Daily Dish to say that the Bay State's recent decriminalization "has also allowed me to 'come out' publicly as a smoker. When I go out for drinks with co-workers and they comment on my lack of drinks, I simply say that I prefer marijuana because it's less debilitating (at least for me). This still takes people aback a bit, but they'll get used to it."
. . . or get off the pot
Whether our representatives in Washington will be brave enough to embrace this emerging political sentiment remains to be seen. "While in general I don't think the criticism that 'Politicians are lagging the public in enlightenment' is accurate," says Frank, "I do think it's true in this case."
Does he wish his colleagues in the House and Senate would be more outspoken? "Oh, of course. But I wish I could eat more and not gain weight. I wish a lot of things."
Because of their clear majority and Obama's abiding popularity, the Democrats may now be encouraged to move swiftly on everything from health care to the environment. But it seems true, so far, that few are inclined to start singing Peter Tosh songs. "They're in power now, and they feel like they have a lot to lose," says Silver. "The Democrats are gonna be reluctant to spend a lot of political capital on it — especially at a national level."
Nonetheless, Nadelmann reports of his private meetings on Capitol Hill, "in frank conversation, the willingness of members of Congress to say, 'Of course you're right, of course this makes sense,' is growing. Before, they'd be scared to say it."
As for help from the White House, don't count on it — yet. Sullivan called Obama's guffawing dismissal of the pot question at that online town hall "pathetic." ("I'm tired of having the Prohibition issue treated as if it's trivial or a joke," he wrote. "It is neither.") But others have suggested that timing is everything.
"I think partly it needs a term-limited president," says Miron, who believes the only reason Schwarzenegger feels intrepid enough to broach the subject in California is that he's a lame duck. He says he could envision Obama taking the reins on the issue "at a minimum, in the middle or at the end of [his] second term, assuming he gets re-elected."
Until then, we can take solace in politicians like Senator Jim Webb, a Democrat from Virginia, whose bold and sweeping prison-reform bill, the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009, was introduced in March. Calling our jails a "disgrace" — and noting that the number of incarcerated drug offenders has increased 1200 percent since 1980 — Webb has in the process become one of the highest-profile politicians to signal his openness to marijuana legalization. "Nothing," he's said, "should be off the table."