Changing minds on long-held beliefs is a nearly impossible feat—something we witness daily in 2018 via flame-filled social media threads.
So imagine, then, how monumental our national conversation on cannabis has been in the last 25 years. I’ve written this before, but I regularly find it’s worth repeating: The legalization of marijuana represents the single-biggest drug-policy shift of our lifetimes and that applies equally to the millennials entering high school and the senior citizens entering retirement.
But perspective can be difficult, especially in such a rapidly changing landscape, so let’s allow this simplified cannabis-in-America timeline to tell the story of how we’ve changed how we’ve come around to marijuana and how unbelievably fast this process has happened:
1998: As the first voter-approved cannabis ballot initiative in the world, Proposition 215 passes with overwhelming support in California, creating the first state-recognized medical marijuana
2004: Still eight years after Prop 215’s passing, only 20 percent of American Republicans support legal marijuana, according to Gallup, which has polled voters on this one question for more than 50 years.
2012: Eight years later, voters in Colorado and Washington state say yes to a regulated adult-use cannabis market, becoming the first municipalities in the modern world to embark on such a path.
2013: The next year, a majority of Americans support legal marijuana for the first time, according to Gallup.
2014: A year later, two more states and the District of Columbia legalize recreational weed the same year as state-regulated recreational markets in Colorado and Washington state open for business, representing the first legal adult-use cannabis sales in the modern world.
2016: Nine states vote on recreational and medical marijuana initiatives. Eight of them pass, including adult-use in California and medical in Arkansas.
The following year, a majority of American Republicans support legal marijuana, according to Gallup.2018:
Canada legalizes adult-use cannabis federally, becoming the first G7 country to do so.
Just look at how hard-fought that change came in those early days. There’s a 16-year gap between medical marijuana passing in California and adult-use passing in Colorado and Washington. But then, everything changes most notably, our public opinion.
A year after the big elections in Colorado and Washington and still a year before they implement those markets national opinion finally tips toward legalization for the first time ever. And a few years later a majority of American Republicans come out in favor of legal marijuana for the first time a 155 percent increase from not even 15 years before, when only 20 percent of conservatives supported legal cannabis.
It’s no coincidence: We changed our relationship with cannabis. Then we changed our opinions about marijuana. And then we legalized it.
Yet as historic as these varying marijuana markets are, none of them exist without this change in public opinion we’ve witnessed. And given that marijuana has been one of those long-held issues that divides us, this very recent shift in public opinion is that much more compelling and important.
As this smart Fast Company piece points out: “The sense of coherence many of us maintain over our beliefs reflects both knowledge and emotion. Being settled in what you believe feels good. Ambivalence doesn’t. So to change someone’s mind, you also need to address their emotional attachment to what they believe. Feeling even slight reservations about your current beliefs can set the stage for shifting more of your support toward an alternative point of view.”
Of course, the emotional attachment component of our recent shift in public opinion on cannabis is everything. Californians said yes to medical cannabis when nobody else was considering MMJ legalization in part because they had a front-row seat to the AIDS crisis in San Francisco, where terminally ill patients were finding unparalleled relief in cannabis.
More than 15 years later we had another compelling human story displaying the still-mysterious medical efficacy of marijuana in Charlotte Figi, the Charlotte’s Web namesake who was described by an International Business Times headline as, “The Girl Who is Changing Medical Marijuana Laws Across the Country.”
That headline is true, though I’d argue that Charlotte’s amazing story changed hearts and minds before it changed actual laws. That’s how this works.
And while the shift in public opinion seems sudden, it was actually the opposite. From that same Fast Company article:
“From the outside, it may look like someone’s changed their mind suddenly, but that’s seldom the case. Usually the steady accretion of facts supporting an alternative position has taken time to build up. Some people may go through a period when they’re explicitly ambivalent about what they believe, but many simply go from strong support for one position to strong support for another…Belief change is a war of attrition, not a search for the knockdown argument that gets someone to see things differently in one fell swoop.”
And so to the many innovators and advocates who came before us including young Charlotte and Prop 64 author Dennis Peron, who died earlier this year I give a deep bow of appreciation. Because of their extraordinarily difficult lives and hard work and sharing their stories far and wide, we have been gifted a world of legal cannabis and more compassionate drug policy.
RICARDO BACA is a veteran journalist and thought leader in the legal cannabis space and founder of Grasslands: A Journalism-Minded Agency, which handles public relations, content marketing, social media, events, and thought leadership for brands and executives in legal cannabis and other highly regulated industries.