Poll shows strong support for legal marijuana: Is it inevitable?

A national Rasmussen Reports poll found that 56 percent of Americans back legal marijuana regulated like tobacco or alcohol. Trends show support on the upswing.

Howard County Police Dept./AP
This photo shows an illegal pot-growing operation busted by cops in Laurel, Md.

A new national poll shows a clear majority of Americans in favor of legalizing and regulating marijuana – "the strongest support ever recorded," according to one pro-marijuana activist.

The Rasmussen poll found that 56 percent of respondents favored legalizing and regulating marijuana similar to the way alcohol and tobacco cigarettes are currently regulated. Thirty-six percent were opposed. 

Critics have dismissed the survey, saying its questions were asked in a particularly leading fashion – a charge that Rasmussen contests. But experts who track the issue say the poll is consistent with the overall trend of steadily rising acceptance of marijuana use.

Despite California’s failure to pass Proposition 19 in 2010 – which would have legalized recreational use – some state may legalize marijuana soon, perhaps as early as this November, says Robert MacCoun, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law, who follows marijuana laws. That means it is time to consider shifting the debate from legalization to consideration of how it should be done, he adds.

“For example, if we tax and regulate, should we tax by weight or should we tax by THC content to discourage the most potent products?” he asks. “Can we set taxes high enough to offset the inevitable steep drop in prices or are we willing to allow consumption to increase?”

Anti-marijuana groups say those questions are premature. If Rasmussen had put facts in the question’s premises, the outcome would have been the opposite, they say.

“If they had asked, ‘If you knew that a majority of homicide convicts in New York had smoked marijuana within 24 hours of their convictions, would you be in favor of legalizing it?’ they would have gotten a far different answer,” says David Evans, special adviser to the Drug Free America Foundation. “These questions are so biased and leading, it’s embarrassing.”

He cites Question 10: “As long as they don’t do anything to harm others, should individuals have the right to put whatever drugs or medication they want into their own bodies?”

“This is a clearly very biased finding," he says. "They’ve asked leading questions to get the responses they wanted.”

Beth Chunn, spokesman for Rasmussen Reports, disagrees. She says the firm conducted the study the way it did to answer a specific question: "This survey tested whether legalization and regulation generated more support than legalizing and taxing. It did.”

Pro-marijuana groups are using the findings to argue that the Obama administration’s raids on state medical marijuana dispensaries are not in concert with the public’s wishes, and that politicians who don’t support further relaxation of penalties are behind the times.

“This is the strongest support ever recorded in favor of marijuana legalization in the US,” says Dale Gieringer, state coordinator of California NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws). “It confirms a trend that originated in 2009, when for the first time polls began to show plurality support for legalization.”

He says the trend can be expected to continue, since younger voters are more favorable toward ending marijuana prohibition than older ones. “Politicians ought to take note of the changing political wind," he says. "Marijuana legalization appears destined to become the next big social freedom issue after gay rights.” 

Other supporters of a more liberal US drug policy also seized on the poll. They say this shows the drug war has failed, and that it’s time not only to ease up on social attitudes while bringing in much needed revenue for strapped government.

"Polling now consistently shows that more voters support legalizing and regulating marijuana than support continuing a failed prohibition approach,” says Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). "If the trends in public opinion continue in the direction they are going, the day is not far away when supporting a prohibition system that causes so much crime, violence, and corruption is going to be seen as a serious political liability for those seeking support from younger and independent voters."

The telephone survey of 1,000 likely voters was conducted May 12.

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