Even more than the permissive cultural attitude of the late 1970s, a more powerful factor may play a role in the current debate over federal marijuana policy: the recession.
Similar to how the Great Depression pushed Uncle Sam into lifting Prohibition—putting more money in government coffers through the regulation and taxation of alcohol—legalization may find itself back on the radar because of the many state budget crises. Just look at California.
NEW YORK — In 1977, President Jimmy Carter asked Congress to decriminalize marijuana possession (it never did). The next year, the Ladies Home Journal described a summer jazz festival on the White House’s South Lawn where “a haze of marijuana smoke hung heavy under the low-bending branches of a magnolia tree.”
The late 1970’s may have been the high-water mark for permissiveness regarding marijuana. But advocates of decriminalized pot believe a confluence of factors, especially the country’s economic malaise, are leading to another countrywide reappraisal of the drug.
“There is momentum of the sort I haven’t seen since I’ve been involved in this,” says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, which supports easing marijuana laws.
He says incidents like then-candidate Barack Obama’s early admission of pot use or the flap over Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps’s bong-smoking may lead to initial public hand-wringing, but in the end they tend to legitimize pot use. So does the growing recognition of medical marijuana.
But, he adds, “the economic crisis is the single most important factor” in this new shift in perceptions.
That’s because the ailing economy is triggering a scramble for new government savings or sources of revenue. Nadelmann compares today’s marijuana laws to alcohol prohibition, approved during prosperous times in 1920 only to become unpopular during the Great Depression. Prohibition was finally repealed in 1933, in part due to the cost of reining in illegal booze and the need to recoup lost tax revenue in tough economic times.
As he signed a law easing prohibition, President Franklin Roosevelt reportedly quipped, “I think this would be a good time for a beer.”