What the Pro-Marijuana Movement Can Learn From Marriage Equality

Brian Fung

The debate over marijuana legalization tends to focus on seniors who use the drug for medicinal purposes. Butand with apologies to old peoplewhat if the aging and the sick aren't really the cohort that will wind up swaying undecideds on the issue?

Last week, the Pew Research Center released a widely cited survey on Americans' attitudes toward marijuana. It found support for legalization way up among almost all adults. Yet buried in the data is a much more interesting finding that could move the focus of discussion to the other end of the age spectrum, making children the crucial constituency in the wider battle over cannabis.

In line with recent trends, the Pew survey confirmed rising support for marijuana across almost all adult cohorts in the United States. Half of parents said they wouldn’t feel uncomfortable if people around them were using marijuana. More important, baby boomers, who were once staunchly against pot, now seem to have changed their minds. Their support for marijuana has surged to 50 percent, up from a nadir of 17 percent in 1991. Today, more boomers are pro-pot than at any point since the 1970s and 1980s, when they first came of age.

Now let’s do some math. By the late ’70s, the oldest of the boomer generationthose born between 1946 and 1964were entering their 30s and having children. Alan Murray, the president of the Pew Research Center, believes there may be a link there, tweeting on April 5: "Fascinating how Boomers have turned on legalizing marijuana. Is it because their kids are now grown?"

Here’s the part where hawk-eyed readers might interject with the Internet’s most pontificatory phrase: Correlation doesn’t imply causation! True enough: Unless we went around asking people how parenthood specifically affected their views of pot, it’d be hard to prove such a link. Even then, dishonest answers would probably interfere with the survey’s accuracy.

But suppose becoming mothers and fathers really did get people thinking twice about supporting marijuana. What would that mean for today’s debate over legalization?

One way to answer that question is to look at a similarly charged social issue: gay marriage. In 2008, conservatives in California pushed hard to ban marriage equality using the argument that gay marriage harmed kids. Gay-rights proponents couldn’t come up with an effective answer to that charge, and because of it, wound up losing the fight over Proposition 8the antigay marriage-ballot initiative that passed in 2008 with more than 52 percent of the vote.

A lot has changed in four years. Last year’s election was a watershed moment for gay marriage, with Maine, Maryland, and Washington state all voting in its favor. A crucial part of those victories involved figuring out how to rebut the “harms kids” argument obliquely. As my colleague at The Atlantic, Molly Ball, reported:

The best way to disarm the kid-themed attacks, [the gay-rights group Freedom to Marry] concluded, was to assuage the underlying fear parents had of losing control of their children's world, without directly addressing what could supposedly happen at school. The message was disarmingly simple: Children learn their values at home, from their parents.

The strategy worked. In 2012, 53 percent of Mainers voted to overturn a previous ban on gay marriage, compared with 47 percent who rejected the ballot measure. Only in Washington state was the margin as wide.

If Alan Murray is right about why parents oppose potthink of (my control over) the children!then a legalization campaign knocking out that concern would make a big difference in places where pot opponents enjoy a slight edge.

Studying both the Prop 8 fight and the 2009 Maine campaign in which the same attacks were used, Freedom to Marry had learned what didn't work. Rebutting the ads directly, pointing out their distortions and inconsistencies, and insisting that kids would not, in fact, be harmed by gay marriage were tactics that didn't help.

What did help? Addressing the children’s issue obliquely.