IT IS 2012 in Washington state, where voters are facing an initiative to legalize recreational marijuana. The airwaves reverberate with ads on both sides. At a glance, it's not always obvious which side is which. One pro-legalization ad features an authoritative man who introduces himself as "the former chief federal prosecutor." Initiative 502, he says, "brings marijuana under tight regulatory control." In another 30-second spot, a "Washington mom" looks up from her newspaper and coffee to declare that she does not like marijuana personally, but "what if we regulate it? Have background checks for retailers? Stiff penalties for selling to minors?"
In Alaska's 2014 legalization campaign, a police officer intones: "Passing Ballot Measure 2 will allow law enforcement to focus on serious issues in Alaska." Nevada's spots in 2016 urge "voting Yes on 2 to regulate marijuana."
You don't need a Ph.D. to see the pattern. "It was about control," says Anna Greenberg, a pollster with the Washington, D.C., firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, who worked on the legalization campaign in Washington. "It was almost hostile to marijuana, as opposed to celebrating it and making it legal."
In 2012, at the same time initiatives in two states legalized recreational cannabis, ballot campaigns in four states legalized same-sex-marriage. Some of the messaging might have been mistaken for a family-values campaign. In a Washington TV ad, a state senator talks about love, commitment, "everything that makes for a good marriage." In a Minnesota spot, an elderly couple extol their 59-year marriage. "Why shouldn't gay people be allowed to enjoy the same happiness and the love that we've enjoyed through our lifetime?" asks the craggy-faced husband, whose emblazoned Marine Corps cap proclaims his military service in Korea.
This, it appears, is how the cause of freedom wins in today's America: by not talking about freedom. As Reason senior editor and drug policy expert Jacob Sullum tells me, "To some extent, you have to talk like a statist."
Today can seem a bleak time for libertarian causes. Republicans are in thrall to populist nationalism. Democrats are flirting with socialism. Deficits, government spending, border barriers, and tariffs are rising. Yet the most significant social policy breakthroughs of this century--the legalization of recreational marijuana and the nationwide recognition of same-sex marriage--were in the direction of liberalization. Both were causes supported by libertarians decades before the public took them seriously. (Impressively, Reason carried an editorial in 1975 supporting gay marriage. Even more impressively, the following year the Libertarian Party endorsed the idea. As for marijuana legalization, Reason has been on that case since at least 1969.) Both represented dramatic reversals of long-established public opinion; both broke through at the same moment.
Structurally, the two issues are different in too many ways to count. But their trajectories in the opinion polls have tracked closely. Like birds and bats, they underwent convergent evolution on their way to liftoff. Compelled by the political and cultural environment to make similar choices, they took parallel routes to legalization--and those routes reveal a lot about how liberalization happens in a country that has more libertarian sympathies than libertarian voters.
IN THE MID-1990S, when I began my own public advocacy of same-sex marriage, it seemed a quixotic crusade. In 1993, a court in Hawaii cracked open the door for marriage equality; Congress and the (Democratic) president responded with a pre-emptive slap-down, the federal Defense of Marriage Act. A movement to write gay-marriage bans into the U.S. and state constitutions swept the country, enjoying crushing success. The cause seemed so hopeless that my father urged me to drop it, lest people think I was a nut--a credible worry at the time.
I was not involved in the marijuana debate--or, I should say, the marijuana issue, because, as with same-sex marriage, there really was no debate. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) had been founded in 1970 and made some headway in the following decade, but it crashed against the reef of "Just Say No" in the 1980s.
Still, had we compared notes, advocates for both issues would have observed...