NEW YORK -- For four decades, libertarians, civil rights activists and drug treatment experts have stood outside of the political mainstream in arguing that the war on drugs was sending too many people to prison, wasting too much money, wrenching apart too many families -- and all for little or no public benefit.
They were always in the minority. But on Thursday, a sign of a new reality emerged: for the first time in four decades of polling, the Pew Research Center found that more than half of Americans support legalizing marijuana.
That finding is the result of decades of slow demographic changes and cultural evolution that now appears, much like attitudes around marriage equality, to be accelerating. More and more people, including Pat Robertson and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), are rejecting the tough-on-crime rhetoric so long directed toward drug use.
But in its latest budget, the White House still requested $25.6 billion to combat drug use just at the federal level, with well more than half of that going toward a strategy centered around law enforcement. The drug war has helped swell America's prison and jail population to 2.2 million people -- meaning that a country with five percent of the world's population contains one quarter of its prisoners.
A recent HuffPost/YouGov poll found that few Americans think these efforts have been worthwhile. Only 19 percent of respondents to that poll said that the war on drugs has been worth the costs, while 53 percent said it has not been. That discomfort with the drug war was shared by respondents across the political spectrum.
The question now, experts and advocates say, is just how quickly Washington will catch up to public opinion, and what that shift will mean for the war on drugs and the criminal justice system in general.
The answer could have tremendous ramifications abroad -- 10,000 people die drug war deaths every year in Mexico -- and at home in the United States.
DEMOGRAPHY IS DESTINY
Much of the movement in public opinion toward marijuana use has been driven not necessarily by the arguments drug reformers have made for years -- that it is safer than alcohol, that we waste too much money on incarceration, that drug use is a victimless crime -- but by simple generational change, said Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard University.
"Younger generations are much more supportive of having choices, they've had much more experience with it, and also in general on many social issues, people are getting more libertarian, more open to less restriction," he said.
When Blendon studied public opinion on the drug war in the mid-1990s, the results were clear: although the American public believed the drug war was failing, they still thought of using drugs as morally wrong and worthy of punishment.
It was a time when Nancy Reagan's maxim -- just say no to drugs -- was still treated as gospel. But two decades later, Blendon said, there are simply too many people who have tried marijuana themselves to believe in that.
According to the Pew survey, 48 percent of Americans say they have smoked weed themselves, up 10 percent from a decade ago. Fifty percent of Americans, meanwhile, say smoking marijuana is not a moral issue, compared to 32 percent who believe that it is. That's a mirror image of the 50 percent moral opposition and 35 percent indifference Pew found just seven years ago.
The shift has come fast, Pew found. In just the past three years, pro-legalization sentiment has spiked 10 percent. And a relatively new phenomenon has emerged: it's not just liberals or libertarians speaking out. Increasingly, it is the names most identified with conservatism.
'RIGHT ON CRIME'
Although President Barack Obama has recently shown signs of "evolving" on marijuana, his Justice Department is still locking up people who grow and distribute weed meant simply for medical use.
In the next few months, Obama will face his moment of truth in the war on drugs: what to do about Colorado and Washington, the two states that legalized marijuana in historic referendums last November. And so far, while legalization and other steps that would help end the drug war are vastly more popular among liberals than conservatives, the president is being outflanked on the right.
In Colorado, former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, known while in office for his strident anti-immigration views, was a prominent supporter of the Amendment 64 referendum legalizing weed on the state level. In the months since the referendum passed, it's become clear that he doesn't stand alone among conservatives.
Robertson, the evangelical media mogul, came out for marijuana legalization at the start of March, citing the staggering human damage of the nation's incarceration system. A couple weeks later, Paul said it wasn't worth putting people in prison for the same crime -- smoking marijuana -- that both Obama and former President George W. Bush have admitted committing.
While Republicans are still more likely than Democrats to disapprove of marijuana on a moral level -- 47 to 26 percent, according to Pew -- there appears to be a growing sense that it is simply not appropriate, or effective, to lock people up for smoking it.
If a change is to take place, it may have to come on a bipartisan basis, Blendon of Harvard said. "At the moment 30 states have Republican governors, and 24 of them have Republican governors and Republican legislatures."
"Obviously we don't support legalizing this," said Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which runs an initiative called Right on Crime. "But on some level there's a sense that we have to prioritize -- and it's not just a matter of saving money."
"What we've said is that a couple decades ago, conservatives were right, we were releasing murderers and rapists too early," he said. But "this pendulum swept a bit too broadly, and we swept a lot of nonviolent and low-level offenders into prison."
His group promotes drug courts, treatment options, and "smarter" parole policies as an alternative to the big government, and big tax dollars, approach of prison.
"I think it's a balanced approach that's really appealing to a lot of lawmakers across the spectrum," he said. "There's still the 30-second ad, the bumper sticker, but I do think we're seeing a lot less of the 'soft on crime' rhetoric."
THE HOUSE MANY STILL LIVE IN
U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske has shed the term "war on drugs" and has made gestures toward focusing on treatment over incarceration, even while the nation's spending remains tilted toward the latter. But is the war truly ending -- and will its most destructive element, the mass incarceration of millions of Americans, end with it?
Although support for marijuana legalization has increased every year over the past decade, the number of people incarcerated in federal prison has only just begun to drop. Support for marijuana legalization jumped from 30 percent to over 50 percent between 2000 and 2013. But the number of people in federal prison for drug crimes actually grew between 2000 and 2010, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. There were 336,300 people in state and federal jails for drug crimes in 2010.
But there are a number of recent signs that the disconnect between public policy and public opinion is coming to an end. In 2010, Congress passed an act reducing the 18 to 1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, which disproportionately affected African-Americans. The ratio is still biased against crack, but less so, an example of the halting and piecemeal progress being made.
This year, meanwhile, Paul and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced a bill that would allow federal judges to override the statutory mandatory minimums that have sent drug offenders away for decades for non-violent offenses.
Yet as Colorado and Washington have shown, change may first come in the states. A host of states are currently considering decriminalizing marijuana, prioritizing treatment instead of imprisonment for drug use, or taking the relatively modest step of making marijuana legal for medical use.
On Monday, filmmaker Eugene Jarecki will screen his documentary about the drug war, "The House I Live In," for California legislators. The goal is to promote a proposed state bill that would grant prosecutors greater discretion to charge defendants accused of drug possession with lesser crimes.
Change is "snowballing in the right direction," said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority. "I think you're going to see a lot of action on the state level in the next several years and action will trickle up to the federal level."
As a student activist, Angell met with members of Congress to argue that students' federal financial aid should not be jeopardized by low-level drug offenses.
"For a long time people would agree with us behind closed doors, but they would be afraid to say that in public," he said. Now, even in Washington, things are changing. "There was just a lot of cynicism and pessimism ... I think that attitude is really going away."
For decades, the politics of the drug war were straightforward: Being tough could help at the polls and came with no political downside; being open to reform had few advantages, but would be used against a candidate on the campaign trail.
That calculation is no longer so simple. In 2009, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) fought a local El Paso councilman pushing a resolution to discuss legalization as a solution to drug-related border violence. Reyes is now a former congressman. The councilman, Beto O'Rourke, beat him.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed statistics about the number of people in federal prison for drug crimes to the Bureau of Prisons. The figures came from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
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