Marijuana officially became legal in Alaska on Tuesday, making it the third state to legalize recreational marijuana in as many years. Voters in two other places — Oregon and Washington, D.C. — have also approved legal marijuana, with similar efforts underway in several other states.
The arrival of legal weed in Alaska and the campaigns across the country come as a majority of the public now thinks marijuana should be legalized. And this is a very recent development, as public opinion on marijuana has radically changed in recent years.
As you can see from this graph from the Pew Research Center, public support for legalizing marijuana gradually increased between the late 1960s and the late 1970s. But that support plummeted in the 1980s, the decade of “Just Say No,” and remained low through the 1990s. It wasn’t until the tail end of the 20th century that public opinion returned to where it was two decades earlier in the waning years of the 1970s.
However, that support remained fairly steady as the 21st century got underway. It was not until this decade that more than half of the public said they supported legalization, a threshold that was reached thanks to a leap in support between 2010 and 2013.
What happened? Well, far fewer people believed that marijuana was linked to hard drug usage. In 1977, shortly before support really fell, six out of 10 people fell that way, compared to fewer than four in 10 people in 2013, according to Pew. This change has also been notable among the nearly half of the population who say they have never tried marijuana: Seven in 10 people (72 percent) who said they had not tried marijuana in 1977 believed it was a gateway drug, but that dropped to 50 percent by 2013. (Meanwhile, new research shows that marijuana may be even safer than previously thought.)
The cost of enforcement is also quite unpopular. A majority of Americans also say that it is not worth the money it costs to enforce the country’s marijuana laws, a belief that spans political parties (majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents all say they feel this way). Much more recently, there was also a considerable turnaround in how many people felt marijuana use was immoral (50 percent of people felt this way in 2006, a number that fell to 35 percent in 2013).
Ultimately, though, generational shifts were a huge factor in the changing public opinion:
There is a huge gap in different age groups here. Millennials are clearly leading the charge, with 63 percent of them thinking it should be legalized. That is more than double the support legalized marijuana has among older Americans (those born between 1928 and 1945). Interestingly, only in recent years have the generations in between really pivoted. Baby Boomers and Generation X alike both felt just two decades ago that marijuana should not be legalized, with roughly a quarter of each age group supporting legalization in the mid-1990s; more than half of both age groups came down on the side of legalization by 2013.
Of course, legalizing something for people to purchase is one thing. A majority of Americans (63 percent) still think people should not actually smoke it in public, according to Pew.