As haze clears, are American opinions on marijuana reaching tipping point?

Updated 12:45 PM EDT, Fri August 30, 2013

Story highlights

In legalization debate, nation has moved from "if" to "how," drug policy expert says

White House calls legalization a "nonstarter;" new policy favors prevention over incarceration

Shift in opinion in last 6-7 years "doesn't feel like a blip," public policy professor says

Poll says in 4 in 10 Americans have tried marijuana, up from 4 in 100 in 1969

It’s the story everyone is talking about. Is marijuana harmful or helpful? CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta cuts through the smoke on America’s “green rush” and journeys around the world to uncover the highs and lows of “Weed” Friday night at 10 ET.

(CNN) —  

The question has dipped in and out of the national conversation for decades: What should the United States do about marijuana?

Everyone has heard the arguments in the legalization debate about health and social problems, potential tax revenue, public safety concerns and alleviating an overburdened prison system – but there isn’t much new to say.

The nation has moved from the abstract matter of “if” to the more tangible debate over “how,” said Beau Kilmer, co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center and co-author of “Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know.”

Changing attitudes about weed are part of a larger shift in the country’s collective thoughts on federal drug policy. Just this week, on the heels of CNN’s Sanjay Gupta reversal of his stance on medical marijuana, Attorney General Eric Holder announced an initiative to curb mandatory minimum drug sentences and a federal judge called New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy unconstitutional.

“Between Attorney General Holder’s announcement, the decision made on stop-and-frisk and Dr. Gupta coming out with his documentary, it was a big week for drug policy,” Kilmer said.

Peruse the Marijuana Majority website and you’ll see decrying pot prohibition is no longer confined to the convictions of Cheech and Chong.

Today’s debate involves an unlikely alliance that unites conservatives Pat Robertson and Sarah Palin with rapper Snoop Lion (aka Snoop Dogg), blogger Arianna Huffington and Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show.” In June, the U.S. Conference of Mayors cited organized crime, a national change in attitude, the efficacy of medical marijuana and exorbitant costs to local governments in its resolution supporting “states setting their own marijuana policies,” a stance similar to the one endorsed by the National Lawyers Guild and the Red Cross.