That was true for women’s suffrage, civil rights, blacks in the military, and even smoking in bars and restaurants. After Surgeon General C. Everett Koop identified second-hand smoke as a cause of cancer in 1986, it still took years before reformers were able to overcome opposition from the tobacco and restaurant industries. It wasn’t till 1995 that California became the first state to ban smoking in public buildings, indoor workplaces and restaurants. Smoking on all domestic U.S. flights was finally banned in 1998. Today, according to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation, 81.5 percent of Americans live where smoking is prohibited in all workplaces, restaurants, bars and public places. Looking back, it’s hard to believe we ever accepted having to breathe in somebody else’s cancer-ridden cigarette smoke as the price for going out to dinner or drinks — and nobody would think of going back to those days.
The same is true of two important issues today. For years, supporters of the legalization of marijuana and same-sex marriage have been voices crying in the wilderness. Law enforcement denounced pot as a gateway drug, while religious leaders condemned same-sex marriage as anti-Bible. Yet suddenly the tide has turned. Public support for both ideas is growing rapidly. Indeed, it’s like a race to the finish line. It won’t be long before pot is legal and marriage equality is recognized in all 50 states. The only question now is: which one gets there first?
My money’s on pot. For several reasons. One, because there are no state constitutional amendments against the legalization of marijuana, so it’s easier to achieve legislatively. Two, because in elected office today, there are so many baby boomers who experimented with pot when they were in high school or college and who may still light up occasionally. Three, growing public support. A January 2014 CNN/ORC International poll shows 55 percent of Americans now support making pot legal for “adult use,” up 12 points since 2012.
Meanwhile, Colorado and Washington state are leading the way, thanks to initiatives passed by voters of both states in November 2012. Pot stores in Colorado, open since Jan. 1, already can’t keep up with demand. State officials project receiving $67 million in tax revenue from recreational marijuana sales this year alone, of which $20 million is earmarked for public schools. Washington state, where stores open this summer, has equally high hopes. And that doesn’t count the extra revenue from “pot tourism,” generated by Americans who flock to Colorado and Washington — jamming hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops — only for the thrill of legally smoking their favorite weed.
President Obama himself has, perhaps unwittingly, helped the cause of legalization. His Justice Department announced it’ll respect the will of voters by not enforcing federal laws against marijuana use in Washington and Colorado. And, in an interview with The New Yorker’s David Remnick last week, the president said he believes marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol, which could certainly be taken as an argument to make pot, like alcohol, legal in all 50 states.
Soon, Colorado and Washington will no longer have the pot market to themselves. Several states — including California, Oregon, Maine, Rhode Island and Illinois — are considering legalization. And last month the New Hampshire House became the first state legislative body to approve legalization of pot, by a vote of 170-162. Of course, in these states hard-pressed for cash, the economic windfall from marijuana sales is a big incentive.
Ironically, that’s also one of the forces driving more and more states to embrace same-sex marriage. Legislators know it’s not only morally wrong to discriminate against gays and lesbians by denying them the right to marry, it’s also stupid to let all that wedding ceremony revenue escape to another state. That’s why 17 states and the District of Columbia already recognize same-sex marriage, and bans against it have been declared unconstitutional in Utah and Oklahoma.
No, change doesn’t happen overnight. You can’t get stoned and married at the same time in all 50 states yet, but it won’t be long.
Bill Press is host of a nationally syndicated radio show.