Ask Our Experts: Where Cannabis Meets Civil Rights and Social Acceptance


Q: Given last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming civil rights protections to the LBGTQ community, are there any lessons to apply for legalizing cannabis?


By John Kagia, Chief Knowledge Officer, New Frontier Data, and Allison Bass, Research Intern, New Frontier Data

A: The landmark decision in Bostock v. Clayton County represents the latest in a series of significant milestones achieved on behalf of lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, and questioning (LBGTQ) communities in recent years. The court’s decision rejecting workplace discrimination against LBGTQ individuals seems particularly robust given that it was some 23 years ago that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was signed into law, prohibiting federal recognition of same-sex marriage.

Parallels between public support for LBGTQ rights and toward cannabis legalization are striking, since as social issues they ranked near identically in 1996, with sectors approximating one-quarter of the U.S. respectively supporting each issue. Likewise, support for each has grown nearly in step, with their now each garnering about two-thirds of the population’s backing.

Noting the similarities regarding social validation, there are valid lessons from the advent of LGBTQ acceptance which may be applied on behalf of the federal legalization movement for cannabis, and what the existing industry might anticipate in coming years:

Young People Drive Change: In 2019, support among Americans aged 18-34 for gay marriage stood at 81%, while their support of cannabis legalization was at 84%. The overwhelming support for each among young (and increasingly politically and socially active) adults underscores expectations of how those attitudes will remain durable generational trends. Furthermore, as younger adults tend to use such issues as general litmus tests for those politicians they seek to support, it will naturally (albeit gradually) lead toward more nominations  and elections of known and trusted candidates and politicians who are likeminded in their causes and efforts.

Social Affinity Drives Change: Among the primary determining factors toward change in public acceptance of a social issue (i.e., whether for supporting LBGTQ equality or medical cannabis) was one’s having personal knowledge of a friend or family member directly involved with the issue. In the case of cannabis, knowing someone whether they benefitted from medical cannabis, or had been afoul with law enforcement for such use was commonly cited among reasons why nonconsumers lent their support to the causes. So long as advocacy on behalf of either LBGTQ rights or cannabis legalization continues, messaging to humanize and personalize those abstract concepts will keep appealing to a coalition of allies.

Popular Culture Helps Humanize Protagonists: In the spring of 1997, Ellen DeGeneres became the first openly lesbian actor to play an openly lesbian character on television. Since then, shows from ”The L-Word” (with the first lesbian ensemble cast, in 2004) to “All My Children” (which featured daytime TV’s first lesbian wedding, in 2009) and “Transparent” (the first show anchored by a transgender lead, in 2014) have presented humanizing portrayals of LBGTQ characters which served to erode social stigmas and misconceptions which had served as obstacles to LBGTQ equality. For cannabis, the modern media has played a slightly different role, transforming associations with cannabis from comically exaggerated stereotypes portrayed in “Cheech and Chong” films to the clear-eyed assessment of medical cannabis efficacy in CCN’s seminal cable-TV documentary series, “Weed by Sanjay Gupta”. Indeed, the CNN series has likely served among the most consequential media catalysts toward acceptance of medical cannabis for nonconsumers who had previously not considered the issue with similar gravitas.

National Institutions Follow, but Do Not Lead:  On issues of transformative social change, recent history has demonstrated that both Congress and the Supreme Court are inclined to lag rather than lead public opinion. As recently seen in the stark light of George Floyd’s videotaped killing, quantum social leaps can lead to acute public pressure having not gained critical mass despite years of earlier accumulated examples of discontent. As such, advocates for both issues will continue to play critical roles in pushing the government for accommodations which likely would remain unrealized short of such external pressures.

While medical and adult-use legalization has swept across many individual U.S. states in recent years, national reforms have been slower to follow. However, if the transformative changes in the government’s position on LBGTQ equality are any indication, the next few years will likely see equally dramatic changes about the federal stance on cannabis. Gaining those necessarily mean greater social acceptance, normalization of industry business practices, and ultimately further acceleration in displacement of illicit markets with a nationally legal and federally regulated one.