Higher Ground: The marijuana train has left the station, and it's not turning around 

Marijuana has become pretty normal in America.

That doesn't mean that people aren't still getting dragged off to jail for possession. According to FBI estimates, about 750,000 people were arrested for marijuana-related offenses in 2012. The vast majority of them were for simple possession, and although marijuana use is approximately equal among both groups, young African-Americans and Latinos are arrested at rates much higher than whites.

Those arrest numbers speak to a whole different set of social issues other than marijuana use, and as soon as this marijuana thing gets untangled, it will give law enforcement one less way to ensnare people of color in the legal system.

That said, there's a very interesting CivicScience report out now, based on data over the past two years, that shows 58 percent of Americans support legal marijuana that is regulated and taxed like alcohol. Data from the past three months shows 61 percent support. I'll discuss implications of those numbers later.

What interested me most about the report is that it just took the level of marijuana support as background for its main focus — marketing: "This Insight Report provides deep demographic and psychographic data about today's supporters of marijuana legalization, to [provide] marketers greater insights into the changing consumer landscape associated with more mainstream acceptance of this issue."

That means the marijuana train has left the station, and it's not turning around.

You know things have changed when marketing people just take marijuana as another factor in their marketing reports. The report profiles supporters of marijuana legalization by age, gender, income, education, political leanings, political engagement, and parental status.

But it goes much further. Now we know that marijuana supporters prefer Red Bull, Budweiser, the Gap, Starbucks, Chipotle, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Mac computers, and Mini cars more than marijuana opponents. Marijuana supporters drink more wine, are more likely to have Facebook accounts, and are more likely to frequently shop online.

Marijuana opponents are more likely to own a gun, more likely to never drink beer, and more likely to say they're very concerned about the economy right now.

Apparently these folks don't have much fun except out on the shooting range.

The report's summary reads: "The current state of consumers in support of marijuana legalization is more reflective of the behaviors we see among the general population. They are more likely to be in favor of popular mainstream brands, engaged with social media and exhibiting modern shopping behaviors. Marketers should be aware of the profile of these consumers and be ready as legalization comes to town."

People in the business world see what's coming, and they're getting ready for it. There's no tut-tutting about the decay of morals and the scourge of marijuana use. They're not worried about marijuana being a deadly gateway to hard drugs. They're just getting ready for the next generation of consumers, and it's going to be a lot more than a few Harold & Kumar movies (although White Castle might want to do a little rebranding).

"Mainstream brands are realizing that marijuana legalization is very popular, and they're trying to hitch their carts to our bandwagon," says Tom Angell, communications manager for Marijuana Majority.

Last spring, one of Stephen Colbert's pistachios commercials shows him visiting Colorado, where recreational marijuana is legal. In the spot, a bald eagle exhales a cloud of smoke and falls off its stoop. "He's fine," says a calm Colbert as he continues munching the little green nuts.

I wouldn't be surprised to see Budweiser implying a double entendre to its classic "This Bud's for you" line. After all, when you get high your throat does get dry.

But what about the numbers showing 58 to 61 percent support for legalization? I haven't paid a lot of attention to the polls the last year or so, partly because they don't translate into direct policy change. However, we're approaching critical levels where that can start happening — big time.

When the support level is just over 50 percent, there can be a lot of dickering going on about margins of error. Plus there are a lot of pockets of pot opposition that can send a lot of legislators to Washington to oppose majority will. However, when you get to 60 percent or above, you're starting to talk about things with no ifs, ands, or buts — particularly in this case, with a sample size of 453,653. This wasn't 500 people they called one week; this was nearly half a million people over two years.

"This huge poll is yet another indication that marijuana legalization is officially a mainstream issue," Angell says. "With ending prohibition polling better with voters than most elected officials do these days, it'll be really interesting to see which 2016 contenders realize that supporting marijuana reform is good politics and which [ones] still don't get it."

Another point to consider is just how fast the trend is moving. The Pew Research Center released poll results in April showing 54 percent support for legalization. Last year, CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta flipped the script and came out in support of medical marijuana. The New York Times recently came out for legalization. And reports out of Colorado are, by and large, showing a successful rollout of legalization.

Some state legislatures are at least seeing the handwriting on the wall for medical marijuana, which has 88 percent public support. Medical marijuana was once established by citizen petition drives. Now legislatures are going ahead and establishing it first. Unfortunately, in most of the states where legislatures establish medical marijuana, the laws are more conservative. For instance, those states generally don't allow home grows and make it available mainly through state-licensed or state-run dispensaries. Some states have enacted super restrictive CBD-only laws that are mainly opportunities for politicians to claim that they support medical marijuana.

But when it comes to CBD-only states, Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project doesn't hedge: "We don't consider them to be medical marijuana states," he says.

In an attempt to derail a medical marijuana petition drive last June, Florida's legislature enacted a CBD-only law. But it didn't work. Now support for an amendment to the state constitution legalizing medical marijuana is polling at about 64 percent. They'll vote on that in November.

More legislative support will come as public support grows, and 2016 may be the year we get over the hump. If trends continue — and these things seldom turn around (see gay marriage) — by the time we're voting in fall 2015 there will be no way politicians can say that Americans are against legalizing marijuana.

"Smart politicians try to focus in on micro-constituencies, even if you have a majority overall," Angell says. "They want to win a primary election in this state, or they want to win this swing state. Majority support across the board is certainly meaningful, and this is a mainstream issue, but we've got to make sure the key constituencies that politicians are concerned with are on our side."

The bottom line is that as mainstream as marijuana has become, police are still knocking down doors and raiding dispensaries. It's hard to convince someone cooling their heels in jail that things are changing.

Support for marijuana legalization has to turn into pushing for effective policy change.

Is that a Red Bull you're drinking? Will you sign my petition? mt

More by Larry Gabriel

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