Normalizing Substance: The Transformation of Marijuana Politics in the United States
Dissertation Abstract


Each year in the United States, approximately 1.5 million people are arrested for nonviolent drug offenses, nearly half resulting from marijuana possession alone. In the absence of comprehensive drug policy reform or political advocates, states and counties have become venues for policy change. This dissertation investigates the causes of support for marijuana legalization in the U.S. Across three studies, I argue that increased support for legalization was the result of 1) marijuana activists using media attention to reshape marijuana discourse combined with 2) structural conditions that allowed for the resonance of claims about the benefits of marijuana legalization. The first study uses computational methods to trace the dramatic shift in discourse about marijuana across the U.S. from 1970 to 2016. I show that through media coverage, marijuana social movement organizations influenced a significant change in marijuana discourse, from dominant negative narratives of criminality and delinquency to positive frames of crime reduction and revenue creation. The second study links discursive data to U.S. public opinion data to show that the movement-initiated shift in marijuana discourse was significantly associated with increased support for legalization. In the final study, an analysis of marijuana legalization ballot initiatives, I find that counties with high levels of racial and parental segregation have higher levels of support for legalization. This dissertation reveals a less understood mechanism of the policymaking process: when political advocates are lacking, social movements make strategic use of media - targeting specific frames to voters across various communities - to transform meanings associated with the issue and garner public support.