DENVER — A new national study says that for the first time it has found the majority of Americans support marijuana legalization, adding new weight to efforts to legalize pot across the country.
Voters in four states, Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, along with Washington, D.C., have legalized recreational marijuana possession and use, and legalization advocates have their sights set on Vermont and Rhode Island this year.
Californians next year are widely expected to decide whether to legalize recreational pot, expanding the state’s large medical marijuana marketplace.
The new General Social Survey says its poll taken last year revealed that 51.7% of Americans thought marijuana should be legalized, with 41.7% opposed and 6.6% undecided. In 2012, the last time the same question was asked, just 43.3% of Americans supported legalization, according to GSS authors at the National Opinion Research Center, who have been conducting surveys since 1941.
“It’s a classic tipping point, where we have the majority of Americans supporting it,” said Tom W. Smith, the director of the GSS, and a senior fellow at NORC at the University of Chicago. “While there’s people still opposed to it, there have not been horror stories about Colorado falling apart. Even those who don’t want to take a toke themselves don’t see it as a gateway drug and reefer madness. There are fewer people buying into that.”
In a statement, the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project said the survey reflects Americans’ acknowledgement that marijuana has been safely used for decades despite being illegal. Legalization advocates say states and the federal government should stop prosecuting marijuana users and instead focus their attention on more harmful substances.
“Marijuana has been a relatively prominent part of American culture for decades, and that’s never going to change,” said Morgan Fox, spokesman for Marijuana Policy Project. “Either we continue to force it into the underground market or we start regulating it and treating it like other products that are legal for adults. Federal and state officials who are clinging to marijuana prohibition need to get over it and allow society to move forward.”
Legalization skeptics say the national support for marijuana obscures the reality that many local voters oppose having pot shops in their neighborhoods.
Kevin Sabet, executive director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which was co-founded by former congressman Patrick Kennedy, said there’s a difference between perception and reality when it comes to marijuana. In Colorado, for instance, even though there are more than 300 licensed marijuana stores, some of the state’s biggest cities, including Colorado Springs and Golden, have barred retail pot sales.
“It’s tough for teachers, social workers, and scientists to get their message out in the face of Big Pot’s PR machine — which is able to promise tax revenue and an end to cartel violence,” Sabet said via e-mail. “There continues to be a wide gap between what science knows and what the public perceives about marijuana. And the last time I checked, scientists were pretty bad at publicizing their findings.
“Though advocates won in three states last November, they lost in 26 out of 31 localities that were voting on whether or not to allow pot shops in their neighborhood. That tells me that legalization in theory gets more support than legalization in practice. And the irony is that the more Big Marijuana tries to lean in on communities, I think the more likely it is we will see a backlash. That may take some time, but we are in it for the long haul.”