Sean Trende observes the rapid mainstream acceptance of both:
In a strange sort of way, Americans have become more liberal on drugs and gay rights because those issues have become more conservative in their presentation.
Remember, when marijuana was first introduced into American society, it was considered a lower-class drug, brought over by Mexican laborers and supposedly indulged in by African-Americans. It was treated as a street drug; one law enforcement officer writing to [Herbert] Hoover in 1929 described it as more damaging than opium or cocaine, and influenced cultural depictions in films like “Reefer Madness,” “Marijuana: Weed With Roots in Hell,” and “Assassin of Youth.” This was the attitude that the “silent generation” and the “greatest generation” held throughout their lives and it is part of why, in Gallup’s 1979 polling, 72 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds and 84 percent of those 50 and older opposed legalization.
But 18- to 29-year-olds were much more favorably inclined toward legalization. The change comes following marijuana’s journey into the counterculture in the ’60s, and those individuals’ subsequent journey to become doctors and lawyers. This shows up, too, in the following tidbit from the report: 30- to 64-year-olds were about as likely to have used marijuana as 18- to 29-year-olds (50 percent vs. 56 percent), vs. only 22 percent of those over the age of 65.
At the same time, cultural depictions of marijuana use have changed. It’s no longer counterculture hippies and African-Americans (remember who smokes up in “Back to the Future”?) who smoke marijuana. It’s Nancy Botwin, the plucky housewife from “Weeds,” supplying the suburban wasteland. And interestingly, the arguments that really move public opinion here are those that are almost conservative in nature: legalization saves money; legalization can forestall the need for property or income taxes (on middle Americans, implicitly); legalization frees up police resources for violent criminals.
He turns to marriage equality:
If you look at public attitudes toward whether homosexuality should be legal over time, they are almost shockingly flat from 1978 (43 percent) through 1996 (44 percent). Support for legalized sodomy then ticks upwards, to near two-thirds support today. Why? Part of this is the age cohort data, but again, I think this is an effect rather than a cause.
Rather, it has to do with the way the case for gay rights is made, and how middle America interacts with it. To my grandparents’ generation, homosexuality was literally unthinkable. Even for me, my earliest images of gay men were those projected by media coverage of gay pride parades and reports of ACT UP members disrupting a Catholic Mass and throwing down the Eucharist in churches. But I had closeted friends in high school that I was pretty sure were gay, and it seemed both blindingly obvious that they weren’t choosing this for themselves and deeply unfair that they could be imprisoned for their sexuality.
But in 1997, something very important happens, and it correlates directly with the increase in acceptance of gays: Ellen DeGeneres came out of the closet, beginning the transition to “Will and Grace” and to “Modern Family.” This was part of a general shift in the discussion of homosexuality. The argument was no longer “let people do what they want.” It was “hate is not a family value.” The presentation of gays in media and entertainment no longer focused on sex (often engaged in by downscale members of society; think “Deliverance” or even “Pulp Fiction”), but on love.