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Number Of The Year

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

Originally published on Wed December 18, 2013 12:49 am

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 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

This week we're exploring the numbers behind the big stories of 2013. And today, the number we're focusing on is 58. That's the percentage of Americans who now support the legalization of marijuana. That number comes from Gallup though other polls also show a new majority in favor of legal pot. It all suggests a big cultural shift on this issue, but is it permanent?

NPR's Martin Kaste goes behind the number.

CHRIS VINCEO: You're the next in line, here?

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: A couple of weeks ago, hundreds of people lined up in the cold for a party near the Space Needle in Seattle. The occasion was first anniversary of the legalization of recreational marijuana in Washington state.

VINCEO: Happy Cannabis Day? Have a good one.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, man, happy anniversary.

KASTE: Chris Vinceo ushered partiers toward a big white tent, the law still bans smoking pot in view of the general public. So the tent was a sort of a beer garden, only full of pot smoke. Vinceo couldn't get over the fact that the city actually issued a permit for this.

VINCEO: Oh, man it's like, events like this can happen legally now. Like that's - there's freedom.

KEITH STROUP: Marijuana is now normal. It's normal in Colorado and Washington, and I think it'll soon be normal in most other states.

KASTE: That's Keith Stroup he likes that word, normal. He's a founder of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. It started pushing for legalization back in 1970.

STROUP: And at the time, only 12 percent of the American public supported it. So we knew it was going to be a formidable task at the time. What we didn't know it was going to take 43 years...

(LAUGHTER)

STROUP: ...or whatever it's been, since then.

KASTE: 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 re-branded pot. It moved it off the street corner and into benign-looking dispensaries with green crosses in the windows. Eventually, pot even became a topic for foodies.

ROSS REYNOLDS: I'm Ross Reynolds. Welcome to "Cooking with Marijuana."

KASTE: Soon after legalization, Seattle Public Radio station KUOW was interviewing chefs.

REYNOLDS: Does it replace something else? What does it bring to a dish just as far as a cook goes?

UNIDENTIFIED MA: Well, there is a great flavor to marijuana, essences of citrus, of grapefruit and...

KASTE: But this mainstreaming of marijuana hasn't been all sweetness and light. The rise of marijuana edibles, for instance, has caused some accidents.

DR. GEORGE SAM WANG: Cookies were probably the biggest thing. There was a cake. There was a candy...

KASTE: That's George Sam Wang. He's 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.

WANG: 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. But, you know, they're pretty small. They look like a normal candy bar. And a child gets into it, they're going to eat the whole thing.

KASTE: So this here's a good example where cultural norms maybe haven't caught up with the new reality. A lot of people no longer feel the need to hide their pot now. But should they really be keeping it out in the open? Should it be acceptable to bake marijuana into perfect replicas of Goldfish crackers?

Dr Wang suggests child-resistant packaging, as one way to co-exist with legal pot. But there are still plenty of people who are in no mood to start making accommodations for the new culture.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Marijuana is illegal anywhere in the United States of America. And until our Congress changes that, it will continue to be illegal.

KASTE: That's from the debate last week in Pierce County, here in supposedly pot-friendly Washington State. The County Council voted to bar state-licensed pot stores from rural parts of the county.

Councilmember Jim McCune lamented the legitimization of marijuana.

JIM MCCUNE: 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.

KASTE: Which brings us back to Keith Stroup, founder of NORML. He's well aware of opinions like this and he worries about a backlash. One reason he's worried is the new fad for marijuana concentrates. These are 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, there.

STROUP: 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.

KASTE: 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. Then...

STROUP: 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.

KASTE: 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.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.