Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Sarah Brady Siff, a visiting assistant professor at the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University, in affiliation with the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC).
It seems true (though not perfectly true) that laws and policies conform to public opinion eventually. I recently attended a virtual meeting on sentencing reform wherein one of the panelists, a district judge, twice underscored the deep importance of public opinion to criminal justice reform. His comments stood out because, in my academic experience, people so rarely talk about public opinion as an element of policy change. Yet everyone seems to agree it exists.
We might reasonably feel optimistic these days about the drift of public opinion toward decarceration and liberalizing drug laws, but such winds have more often blown in the opposite direction. A century ago, the Supreme Court followed public opinion and affirmed the constitutionality of the Volstead Act, leading the country into the disaster of federal alcohol prohibition. Such laws did not lead to orderly sobriety but to similar measures against other substances like the widespread “preventive” prohibition of cannabis. Such was the historical argument of legal scholars Richard Bonnie and Charles Whitebread in 1970. They worried that contemporary public opinion about cannabis had been inflamed by the larger social conflicts of the 1960s, consigning the marijuana debate to “the public viscera instead of the public mind.”
Sadly, they were right. Although many scholars and activists in the early 1970s considered legalization imminent, this possibility disappeared in a cloud of bad press and President Carter’s spiraling public approval rating. Then, during the 1980s and 1990s, Joe Biden was one leading politician who often proposed or supported escalations of the drug wars because of public opinion. Biden, and other drug warriors, explicitly argued that the people wanted tougher drug policies and more federal aid to drug law enforcement. (The people, he said, were even willing to spend money on it.)
Public opinion is uncontrollable yet essential; public opinion can be either fickle, deep-rooted, or mysterious. But since public opinion can—and often does—influence laws and policies, we might think about it more often. In that spirit, I offer a brief collection of media artifacts from several different eras that have helped shaped public opinion about drug control. Americans have been consuming a sustained diet of drug-related information for more than a century.