Sociologist examines the history and social significance of the legalization movement | CoLA | SIU

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Sociologist examines the history and social significance of the legalization movement

April 18, 2017


When it comes to marijuana, the “war on drugs” seems to be over.

While many factors influence this shift in policy, sociologist Darren Sherkat argues that a pivotal factor is a marked increase in support of legalization from the black community.

At present, 26 states and the District of Columbia have laws legalizing marijuana in some form. Three other states will join them soon after recent measures permitting use of medical marijuana. In addition, seven states and the District of Columbia have adopted more expansive laws legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

Sherkat notes that, despite the publicity surrounding the “war on drugs,” no substantial study has systematically charted trends in attitudes or examined the sources of support for marijuana legalization. His recent study focuses on three primary factors that affect opinions about legalization: ethnicity, religious affiliation and political commitment.

Sherkat finds that, among whites, the rise of the Baby Boomer cohort to political prominence seems to contribute to increased support for legalization. Among blacks, though, a more significant factor than generation seems to be “social movements such as Black Lives Matter and broader police and prison reform movements,” including those supported by black-based churches.

“Marijuana is one of the most widely used drugs in the United States and has been since the late 1960s,” Sherkat says. “However, its popularity has largely been met with harsh criminalization. Despite the unabated efforts of law enforcement and supporters of drug criminalization, the 21st century has seen a groundswell of activism and success at decriminalizing, and even legalizing, marijuana. This came as a considerable surprise to most sociologists — me included.”

Sherkat examined data from the General Social Survey from 1972 to 2014 to chart trends in attitudes regarding legalization. The General Social Survey is a sociological tool used to chart and record American concerns, experiences, attitudes and practices.

Sherkat finds that, from about the late 1980s, support for legalization was greater among whites than among blacks, and that support grew among whites at a steady pace. In 2014, 57.8 percent of whites expressed pro-legalization opinions. Blacks showed more support for legalization than whites did until 1984, when support dropped off considerably, reaching a low of about 11 percent in support of legalization in 1989. 

Beginning in 2002, however, pro-legalization opinions increased significantly, with nearly 40 percent of blacks in favor of it in 2006, about 52 percent in 2008 and 63.2 percent in 2014.

Sherkat notes that the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 (DAPCA) is significant for labeling marijuana a Schedule I drug, with users risking felony charges, long prison sentences and property forfeiture. Schedule I drugs, including heroin and LSD, are those deemed to carry high potential for abuse and with no accredited medical value.

A Gallup Poll in 1971 found that, despite this harsh ruling, more than half of American college students admitted having tried marijuana. “Marijuana became ubiquitous among young, rich, white kids,” Sherkat says. “And DAPCA set the stage for an epidemic of felony convictions for marijuana possession and cultivation, targeted mostly at hippies, African Americans and Latinos.”

President Ronald Reagan campaigned on a “tough on crime” platform, of which the “war on drugs” was part. Cocaine was the urban drug of choice in the 1980s, and gang violence accompanied it. African Americans, living predominately in urban areas, suffered the effects of gang violence more uniformly as a group than white Americans did.

“Everyone hated the drug dealers,” Sherkat says. “If you get rid of the drug dealers, you get rid of the violent crime. That’s why support for legalization decreases among blacks in the 1980s – they bought into the ‘war on drugs.’”

Beginning in 1990, though, support for legalization begins to increase steadily in both ethnic groups, though whites favored legalization generally more than blacks did. What happened in 1990-1991 that caused support for the legalization of marijuana to increase? At least among whites, generational turnover was a major factor, Sherkat says. The Baby Boomers who had popularized marijuana use came to dominate political power.

“Parents were seeing their kids going to prison for 10 years for smoking a joint, something they remembered doing,” Sherkat says. “They are thinking, ‘What’s the problem? Marijuana makes you eat Cheetos, it’s not like cocaine.’ Finally, there was popular recognition that marijuana is a different drug, and that felony convictions and long prison sentences for personal use amounts is unjust.”

Politicians still wanted to be tough on crime, Sherkat said, noting the 1996 Crime Bill that was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Critics now say that bill led to an explosion in incarceration rates among young black men. 

Put simply, Sherkat says, the tough-on-crime policies “terrorized” the black community, contributing, not to a cessation of gang violence, but to a drug-related incarceration rate for blacks as much as 12 times that of whites.

The response of black churches was a game-changer.

“African Americans are more religious than any other group in the United States,” Sherkat says. “Protestantism is not traditionally open to the concept of legalizing marijuana. It’s more attuned to concepts of obedience to God’s law and punitive measures against transgressors. But in the 1990s, we see a shift in the churches – they go from condemning drug abusers to offering support and help.”

The connection between the shift in the church attitude and the rise of Black Lives Matter is another matter, but both movements are concerned with all levels of criminal justice interaction with blacks, including the high incarceration rate and lengthy sentences handed down in courts. The 2014 survey shows that, after 30 years of supporting marijuana legalization less enthusiastically than whites, blacks now show more support for legalization than whites do –  23 percent more – than previously recorded. That support, it seems, may have less to do with the drug than with the punishment attached to it.

“Most Americans currently agree with legalization,” Sherkat says. “However, entrenched interests in government bureaucracies at all levels will likely mean that legalization will be state by state, that conservative municipalities will enforce penalties and that federal legalization will not take place for at least a decade.”