Why the 1970s Effort to Decriminalize Marijuana Failed

That booming paraphernalia market, however, would also prove to be decriminalization’s undoing. By 1978, rates of adolescent marijuana use had skyrocketed, with 1 in 9 high school seniors smoking pot every day and children as young as 13 reporting that the drug was “easy to get.” This angered a growing number of parents, who saw kid-oriented paraphernalia as a “gateway” to drug use. The grassroots parent movement, which began in 1976 and came to its height of influence during the Reagan administration, worked to overturn state decriminalization laws and reaffirm the federal government’s anti-marijuana stance. Once decriminalization was overturned, the paraphernalia companies that had sprouted across the country folded as quickly as they had formed.

This previous experiment with decriminalization shows exactly how shaky the current legalization efforts in the United States might actually be. Despite widespread support for legalization (including from all current 2020 candidates for the presidential Democratic nomination), an unregulated and hyper-commercialized marijuana marketplace was unpopular enough to overturn lenient drug laws 40 years ago, and could potentially do so again today.

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