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Marijuana legalization wins majority support in poll

April 04, 2013|By David Lauter
  • Medical marijuana plants for sale at the Farmacy, a California medical marijuana dispensary.
Medical marijuana plants for sale at the Farmacy, a California medical… (Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles…)

WASHINGTON -- A majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana, a new poll indicates, with the change driven largely by a huge shift in how the baby boom generation feels about the drug of their youth.

By 52% to 45%, adult Americans back legalization, according to the survey released Thursday by the Pew Research Center. The finding marks the first time in more than four decades of Pew's polling that a majority has taken that position. As recently as a decade ago, only about one-third of American adults backed making marijuana legal.

Two big shifts in opinion go along with the support for legalization and likely contribute to it. Most Americans no longer see marijuana as a "gateway" to more dangerous drugs, and most no longer see its use as immoral. As recently as 2006, half of respondents said in a Pew survey that marijuana use was “morally wrong.” Now, only one-third do, while half say that marijuana usage is “not a moral issue.”

By an overwhelming margin, 72% to 23%, respondents said the federal government’s efforts against marijuana “cost more than they are worth.”

Similarly, by nearly 2-to-1, respondents said the federal government should not enforce its anti-marijuana laws in states that allow use of the drug.

The Obama administration has been vague on what stand it will take concerning federal law enforcement in states such as Washington and Colorado, which have legalized marijuana for recreational use, or in states such as California that allow medical use. Federal prosecutors in California have brought charges against some sellers of medical marijuana.

Read the full survey from Pew Research

In December, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. acknowledged a “tension between federal law and these state laws” and said that a clarification of federal policy would come “relatively soon.” That has not yet happened. So far, 24 states and the District of Columbia either have decriminalized personal use of marijuana, legalized it or allowed it to be used for medical purposes. Federal law currently treats marijuana as a dangerous drug with no legitimate medical uses.

The poll suggests a shift in federal law may be slow. A notable political split exists on the issue, with conservative Republicans heavily against legalization, while majorities of Democrats, independents and liberal and moderate Republicans back it. Conservatives have strong sway among Republicans in the House.

But on two issues, opinion is more uniform: the belief that current enforcement efforts are not worth the cost, and acceptance of the idea that marijuana has legitimate medical uses. By 77% to 16%, poll respondents said they agree on that, with support for medical marijuana cutting across partisan and generation lines.

Support for legalization is strikingly uniform among states, with the percentage virtually the same in the states that have decriminalized, legalized or allowed medical use and in the 26 where marijuana remains fully illegal. There is little variation among various regions of the country either -- a sharp contrast with other cultural issues, on which coastal states tend to be more liberal and the South more conservative.

That finding contradicts the strategy that supporters of marijuana legalization have followed over the past decade, in which they have pushed first to allow medical marijuana in the belief that states that have taken that step would more likely back full legalization. The new data suggest either that such careful strategizing was unnecessary or that a broader cultural shift in favor of full legalization has made it obsolete.

The percentage of people who say they have used marijuana in the last year (about one in 10) or at any point in their lives (about half) is virtually identical in states that have legalized some marijuana use and those that have not, suggesting that more liberal laws have simply made usage more visible, not increased it, as some have feared.

The main divisions on marijuana legalization are those of age: Younger Americans back legalization more than their elders, although the poll shows legalization gaining support among all generations.

Among those age 30 to 49, parents are less likely to support legalization than non-parents. Those with children 18 or younger at home are closely divided, 50% to 47%, while those without children at home support legalization by a 62%-35% margin.

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