The Timing of Social Change
How long does it take for a society to change? Marijuana Prohibition is now seventy-five years old, and War on Drugs was declared fifty years ago. Federal marijuana prohibition began in1937, and very quickly, in the mid-forties, Mayor LaGuardia’s medical commission published it report showing the benign nature of the plant and recommending legalization. Reform efforts have continued, and even increased in recent years; but Prohibition still controls. What can be said about the pace of change and the likelihood of reform in the near future?
The story of other social reforms may provide clues about the pace at which change occurs. Commonly, efforts for change begin slowly, build organization and understanding, start rallying public support. And then, after decades of frustration and discouragement, quickly achieve what seems to be overnight success.
Two current social issues represent a probable course of social change: same sex marriage and gun control. Both started in a somewhat distant past, at first almost invisible, struggled as ignored minority problems, and then suddenly blossomed into public notice with the support of a popular majority.
Open homosexual behavior dates back before the dawn of history and was common in both classical Greece and the Roman Empire. During the era of a repressive church, it was suppressed into secrecy, but by the 1890s, gay culture was resurfacing in both Europe and the United States. In the 1950s, some openly homosexual groups began to appear, but had no large impact until the Stonewall Riots and the outbreak of AIDS forced their work into public attention. The first reactions were negative: for instance, G. H. W. Bush cancelled the marijuana compassionate use program, fearing that the White House would be blamed for giving marijuana to thousands of gay AIDs patients. The Supreme Court upheld laws criminalizing homosexual conduct in Hardwick, 1986, and congress enacted the Defense of Marriage Act. But things began to change. With Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Bill Clinton first began to allow gays in the military – as long as they were discrete. But then things changed rapidly. The Court quickly reversed itself and held laws against homosexual conduct were unconstitutional. Eight states recognized same-sex marriage. The military removed all restriction on homosexual orientation. Congress extended the Violence Against women Act to cover violence between same-sex couples. It appears that LGBT community seems likely in the immediate future.
American life was riddled by gunfire, often from submachine guns, during alcohol Prohibition and the Great Depression as criminal gangs ran amok. Congress responded with the Machine Gun Tax of 1934, which virtually removed automatic weapons from American culture. Most states and some large cities added statutes controlling the carrying of firearms. Violence remained endemic, but rarely broke out until the 1960s. Then John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated and Ronald Regan was wounded in an attack that also wounded his press secretary, James Brady. These incidents led to the limited and deeply flawed assault rifle ban and background check system, which, in turn, was poorly enforced. In reaction, the National Rifle Association realigned from being an association of sports shooter into a strident and absolutist lobbyist for arms manufacturers and revolutionary extremists. But a series of highly publicized mass shootings, from Columbine to Virginia Tech to Tucson to Aurora to Sandy Hook, energized public opinion and will probably lead to a new round of legislative activism.
Both of these trends when plotted over time roughly trace a graph known by statisticians as a “hockey stick curve”: one that goes in an almost flat line (trending either up or down) for a substantial period of time, makes an abrupt curve, and then going in the same direction at a greatly increased rate. In other words, nothing much seems to happen for a long time and then the issue explodes. Both the campaign for women’s rights from Seneca Falls to Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign of 2008 and the struggle for racial equality from the Civil War to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 followed similar trajectories.
Is the campaign for the rights of marijuana users doing the same? As the mention of the LaGuardia Commission indicates, resistance to criminalization began very early but remained low-key for decades. The first major movement began in the mid-1970s soon after the Controlled Substances was enacted and the Shaffer Commission Report was published. About a dozen states decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, and some others reduced possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. In 1996, California was the first state to allow possession of marijuana for medical use. Now eighteen states and the District of Columbia have done so. Over thirty per cent of the U. S. population now lives in medical marijuana jurisdictions, and at least two more states look likely to join in this legislative season. Last year two states legalized marijuana within their borders, and one or two more may join them this year. More members of congress are talking about marijuana than at any time previous, and more bills have been filed.
Marijuana reform has made the hockey-stick turn and major changes should occur quickly. Look for significant changes in federal law before the 2016 presidential elections.