A few months ago, Gallup reported that for the first time, a clear majority of Americans (58%) support legalization of marijuana. When Gallup first polled on this question, in 1969, only 12% endorsed legalization. The results were largely in line with Pew Research Center findings published in April, when it found a narrow majority favoring marijuana legalization, too.
The next question, of course, is whether political leaders would follow the public's lead, and there's some evidence that the answer is yes. President Obama, for example, made headlines this week when he suggested marijuana is less dangerous for users than alcohol.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) raised even more eyebrows yesterday when he signaled support for decriminalization.
Texas Governor Rick Perry said Thursday that he is in favor of softening penalties for pot users, touting strides his state has made towards decriminalizing marijuana use. "As governor, I have begun to implement policies that start us toward a decriminalization," Perry said at a World Economic Forum panel on drug legalization in Davos, Switzerland. Perry proposed the idea of alternative "drug courts" that provide treatment options and softer punishment for minor offenses.
Though Perry's spokesperson clarified that the governor has not endorsed legalization, he supports decriminalization and believes states "should be allowed" to legalize the drug if they choose to do so.
It's worth noting that this appears to be a new position for the Texas Republican. Ana Yañez-Correa, director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said she was "shocked" by the governor's comments, adding, "The decriminalization of marijuana is not something Perry has historically supported."
There's a real, practical reason developments like these matter.
We talked last fall about U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who made several progressive moves on federal drug policy that represented a genuine breakthrough moment. The nation spent four decades waging a costly and punitive "war on drugs," which proved to be something of a disaster, and here was the nation's chief law-enforcement official making clear that it was time for a meaningful policy shift.
Holder wasn't the first to believe this, but he and the Obama administration were among the first to take the lead in changing the public conversation at the national level. Why did it take so long? The political environment was, to put it mildly, inhospitable -- Democrats who dared to question the wisdom of U.S. drug policy risked being labeled a left-wing radical who's "soft" on crime.
But after the Obama administration endorsed a change, something interesting happened: there was no conservative pushback. There were no attack ads or smear campaigns. Indeed, just the opposite has happened -- Rick Perry, whom no one would describe as a moderate in his party, is adopting a new, more progressive posture on marijuana for the first time.
What's more, he's not alone. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) blasted the "failed war on drugs" this week; Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) routinely urges reforms to the nation's drug laws; and even Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) is open to legalization.
The debate is not only changing quickly, it's evolving in a bipartisan way that was hard to even imagine a decade ago.