Majority of Americans Favor Legalizing Pot

For the first time in more than four decades of polling on the issue, a majority of Americans favor legalizing the use of marijuana. A national survey finds that 52 percent say that the use of marijuana should be made legal while 45 percent say it should not.

Support for legalizing marijuana has risen 11 points since 2010. The change is even more dramatic since the late 1960s. A 1969 Gallup survey found that just 12 percent favored legalizing marijuana use, while 84 percent were opposed.

The survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted March 13-17 among 1,501 adults, finds that young people are the most supportive of marijuana legalization. Fully 65 percent of Millennials – born since 1980 and now between 18 and 32 – favor legalizing the use of marijuana, up from just 36 percent in 2008. Yet there also has been a striking change in long-term attitudes among older generations, particularly Baby Boomers.

Half (50 percent) of Boomers now favor legalizing marijuana, among the highest percentages ever. In 1978, 47 percent of Boomers favored legalizing marijuana, but support plummeted during the 1980s, reaching a low of 17 percent in 1990. Since 1994, however, the percentage of Boomers favoring marijuana legalization has doubled, from 24 percent to 50 percent.

Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, came of age in the 1990s when there was widespread opposition to legalizing marijuana. Support for marijuana legalization among Gen X also has risen dramatically – from just 28 percent in 1994 to 42 percent a decade later and 54 percent currently.

The Silent Generation continues to be less supportive of marijuana legalization than younger age cohorts. But the percentage of Silents who favor legalization has nearly doubled – from 17 percent to 32 percent – since 2002.

The survey finds that an increasing percentage of Americans say they have tried marijuana. Overall, 48 percent say they have ever tried marijuana, up from 38 percent a decade ago. Roughly half in all age groups, except for those 65 and older, say they have tried marijuana.

About 1 in 10 (12 percent) say they have used marijuana in the past year. Age differences are much more pronounced when it comes to the recent use of marijuana: 27 percent of those younger than 30 say they have used marijuana in the past year, at least three times the percentage in any other age group.

Among those who say they have used marijuana in the past year, 47 percent say they used it “just for fun,” while 30 percent say it was for a medical issue; 23 percent volunteer they used it for medical purposes and also just for fun.

As support for marijuana legalization has grown, there has been a decline in the percentage viewing it as a “gateway drug.” Currently, just 38 percent agree that “for most people the use of marijuana leads to the use of hard drugs.” In 1977, 60 percent said its use led to the use of hard drugs.

More recently, there has been a major shift in attitudes on whether it is immoral to smoke marijuana. Currently, 32 percent say that smoking marijuana is morally wrong, an 18-point decline since 2006 (50 percent). Over this period, the percentage saying that smoking marijuana is not a moral issue has risen 15 points (from 35 percent then to 50 percent today).

Amid changing attitudes about marijuana, a sizable percentage of Americans (72 percent) say that government efforts to enforce marijuana laws cost more than they are worth. And 60 percent say that the federal government should not enforce federal laws prohibiting the use of marijuana in states where it is legal. Last fall, voters in two states – Colorado and Washington State – approved the personal use of small amounts of marijuana for recreational use.

There are partisan differences over legalizing marijuana use and whether smoking marijuana is morally wrong. But Republicans and Democrats have similar views on enforcing marijuana laws: 57 percent of Republicans and 59 percent of Democrats say that the federal government should not enforce federal marijuana laws in states that permit its use. Substantial majorities of both Republicans (67 percent) and Democrats (71 percent) also say federal enforcement of marijuana laws is not worth the cost.

While Americans increasingly support legalizing marijuana and fewer see its potential dangers, many still do not like the idea of people using marijuana around them. About half (51 percent) say they would feel uncomfortable if people around them were using marijuana, while 48 percent would not feel uncomfortable. As with nearly all attitudes about marijuana, there are substantial age differences in discomfort with others using marijuana – 74 percent of those 65 and older say they would be uncomfortable if people around them used marijuana, compared with 35 percent of those under 30.

Recent Rise in Support for Legalization

The long-term shift in favor of legalizing marijuana has accelerated in the past three years. About half (52 percent) of adults today support legalizing the use of marijuana, up from 41 percent in 2010.  Since then, support for legalization has increased among all demographic and political groups.

Nearly two-thirds of those under 30 (64 percent) favor legalizing marijuana use, as do about half or more of those 30 to 49 (55 percent) and 50 to 64 (53 percent). There is far less support for legalization among those 65 and older (33 percent); still, there has been an 11-point rise in support among older Americans since 2010.

Men (57 percent) are somewhat more likely than women (48 percent) to support marijuana legalization. Support is comparable among racial and ethnic groups — roughly half of whites (52 percent), blacks (56 percent) and Hispanics (51 percent) favor legalizing the use of marijuana.

Only about 3 in 10 conservative Republicans (29 percent) say marijuana use should be legal. Moderate and liberal Republicans are far more likely than conservatives to favor legalization (53 percent).

Like Republicans, Democrats are ideologically divided over legalizing marijuana. While 73 percent of liberal Democrats favor legalizing use of marijuana, only about half of conservative and moderate Democrats agree (52 percent).

Fully 70 percent of those who have ever tried marijuana, including 89 percent of those who have tried it in the past year, say the use of marijuana should be legal. That compares with just 35 percent of those who have never tried marijuana. Support for legalization has increased since 2010 among those who have ever tried marijuana (by six points) as well as those who have not (by 10 points).

Opinions about legalizing marijuana vary little among states that have more permissive marijuana laws and those that do not. A majority (55 percent) of those in states that have legalized medical marijuana or have decriminalized (or legalized) marijuana for personal use favor legalizing marijuana. Yet 50 percent of those in states in which marijuana is not decriminalized (or legal for any purpose) also favor its legalization.

Shifting Attitudes about Marijuana

Over the past three decades, there has been a substantial decline in the percentage saying that for most people marijuana leads to the use of hard drugs. Just 38 percent express that view currently; in a 1977 Gallup survey, 60 percent said marijuana led to the use of hard drugs.

Much of this shift is the result of generational change. In the 1977 survey, most of those in Greatest Generation (76 percent), born before 1928, accepted the link between marijuana and hard drug use. The generations that have come of age since 1977 – Gen X and Millennials – are far less likely to say that marijuana use leads to the use of hard drugs (36 percent of Gen X, 31 percent of Millennials).

Notably, Boomers view this issue in about the same way as they did in 1977, when there was relatively broad support among this age cohort for legalization. Currently, 37 percent of Boomers say that marijuana use leads to the use of hard drugs; in 1977, 39 percent expressed this view. Similarly, 60 percent of Silents currently say that marijuana use leads to the use of hard drugs, which is virtually the same as opinion among this age cohort in 1977 (62 percent).

Those who have never tried marijuana are much less likely to view marijuana as a gateway to hard drugs than in the 1970s. In 1977, 72 percent of those who had never tried marijuana said it led to use of hard drugs; today, just half (50 percent) of those who have never tried it express this view. In 1977, few who had tried marijuana said there was a link to hard drugs (19 percent); that remains the case today (26 percent).

State Marijuana Laws

Only medical marijuana is legal in Arizona, Delaware, Washington, D.C., Hawaii, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Vermont.

Marijuana is decriminalized in Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, and Ohio.

Medical marijuana is legal and marijuana decriminalized in Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington.

Not decriminalized or medical in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

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Source: National Conference of State Legislatures and National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, 2013.

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