A majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana, a new poll shows, with the change driven largely by a huge shift in how the baby boom generation feels about the drug of their youth.
By 52 percent-45 percent, 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 Americans 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 percent-23 percent, Americans say the federal government’s efforts against marijuana “cost more than they are worth.”
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Similarly, by nearly 2-to-1, Americans say 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 on 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.
In December, Attorney General Eric Holder 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 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 percent-16 percent, Americans 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 where 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 suggests 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 past year (about 1 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 aged 30-49, parents are less likely to support legalization than non-parents. Those with children 18 or younger at home are closely divided, 50 percent-47 percent, while those without children at home support legalization by 62 percent-35 percent.
The impact of parenthood may also be part of the most striking shift in opinion — the change among members of the baby boom generation. During the 1970s, when baby boomers were in their teens and 20s, a plurality supported legalizing pot, with support hitting 47 percent in a 1978 survey. But as they aged, boomers changed their minds, with support for legal marijuana dropping to fewer than 1 in 5 baby boomers by 1990, when members of the generation were in their 30s and 40s. Since then, they’ve shifted again, and the new poll shows 50 percent now support legalizing the drug.
Contrary to the image of boomers turning to pot to assuage the aches and pains of middle age, however, only 7 percent of those aged 50-64 said they had used marijuana in the past year.
Overall, 48 percent of adults said they had used marijuana at some point in their life. Those who admit using the drug are far more likely to support legalization than those who say they never have used it, although support for legalization has grown among both groups.
The percentage now saying they have used marijuana at some point is up considerably from the 38 percent who said so a decade ago. The poll does not make clear how much of that shift involves an increase in recent usage versus people being more willing to admit past marijuana use or, simply, the passing of an older generation that was much less likely to have used the drug.
Just over 1 in 10 people in the current survey said they had used marijuana in the past year. Among those younger than 30, more than 1 in 4 said they had done so. Among those who had used marijuana in the past year, just over half said they had done so at least in part for medical reasons, with 47 percent saying they had done so “just for fun.”
The Pew survey was conducted March 13-17 by telephone, including cell phones and land lines, among 1,501 American adults. The results have a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.