President Biden announced on Thursday that he would issue pardons to Americans with federal marijuana possession convictions, while encouraging governors to do the same for the much greater number of citizens convicted of similar offenses at the state level. Biden also revealed that his administration would begin the process of reviewing whether marijuana should be classified by the federal government as a dangerous Schedule I drug. While the president cannot fully legalize marijuana possession or sale without congressional approval, Biden’s actions represent a clear gesture of support for ending the enforcement of laws prohibiting its use.
For anyone who is old enough to remember the aggressiveness of the government’s anti-drug campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s, the prospect of federal marijuana decriminalization is a notable milestone. And the fact that Biden is the president overseeing this policy change seems even more remarkable. Although he was a young left-of-center adult during the 1960s, the teetotaling Biden has never exhibited any whiff of the counterculture, and his record in the Senate—especially while chairing the Judiciary Committee between 1987 and 1995—was marked by repeated support for toughening federal penalties for drug-related crimes.
But by changing his mind about cannabis policy, Biden is merely following a path already traveled by many of his fellow Americans. In 1990, only 16 percent of respondents to the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey favored the legalization of marijuana. By 2018, the most recent year with available data, the share of supporters had risen to 61 percent. The rate of increase was even higher among Democrats: from 17 percent in 1990 to 69 percent just 28 years later.
It’s rare for public opinion to swing so dramatically on any political issue. But drug legalization is an especially unusual case because American citizens started rethinking their beliefs well before their elected representatives did. Even today, political leaders still seem to be lagging behind the rapidly shifting attitudes of their constituents.
Political scientists have traditionally emphasized the role of political elites in shaping the views of ordinary citizens. On many issues, most Democrats and Republicans in the mass public accept the positions advocated by the leaders of their favored party. For example, the share of Republican voters who saw free trade agreements as a “good thing for the U.S.” dropped from 56 percent in 2015 to 36 percent two years later, according to the Pew Research Center, reflecting the sudden shift in messaging from the top of their party once Donald Trump, a vocal critic of free trade, assumed leadership of the GOP.
But the rise in support for legal marijuana can’t be explained that way. It began in the 1990s, well before gaining the endorsement of prominent politicians in either party. Advocates of legalization initially found much more success in enacting state-level reforms using the citizen initiative process, which put their proposals directly before voters, than they did by persuading their elected representatives to approve changes in state law. Seven of the first eight states to legalize cannabis for medical purposes (starting with California in 1996), and 12 of the first 14 states to approve recreational use (starting with Colorado and Washington in 2012), did so via ballot proposition.
On this issue, Americans didn’t simply listen to their party’s most prominent figures. Decreased national crime rates since the 1980s, newfound skepticism of the theory that marijuana acts as a “gateway drug” to more dangerous substances, and growing media promotion of its medical benefits have convinced voters to support legalization over the reluctance or outright opposition of most political leaders. International trade and other complicated, remote topics might ordinarily prompt citizens to exercise deference to the judgment of professional politicians. But drug legalization seems like an easy issue to understand and relate to personal experience, which makes voters more secure in making up their own minds.
Biden is clearly hoping to increase voter enthusiasm among young Democrats and liberal independents by announcing his policy change a month before the midterm elections. But after waiting as long as he did, Biden’s timing risks becoming anti-climactic. Most supporters already live in states where marijuana is either fully legal or permitted in practice, and even the Republican opposition doesn’t seem motivated to put up much of a public fight over an issue on which popular sentiment has steadily moved leftward. Sometimes in politics, our so-called leaders discover that they’re the ones who are being led to someplace new.