Decriminalize marijuana? Four ways America's views of pot are changing

Polls show national opinion toward marijuana use steadily changing toward greater acceptance, and laws are changing and ballot initiatives are coming before voters. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, for instance, wants to decriminalize possession of small quantities of pot. Here is a look at how America's views on marijuana are changing in four key areas.

1. Polls

Eric Risberg/AP/File
This file photo shows marijuana grown for medical purposes in Potter Valley, Calif.

For more than 20 years, national polls have shown increasing acceptance of marijuana use, proponents of legalization note. But acceptance has not yet hit a critical mass, opponents counter. They point to the failure of California’s Proposition 19 in 2010, which would have allowed small amounts of marijuana for personal use while regulating and taxing it. 

Polls offer different views on whether – and how much – views of marijuana have changed since then.

Some experts say the first state to approve marijuana for casual use is right around the corner, perhaps as soon as this November.

According to a Rasmussen Reports poll released in May, 56 percent of Americans now support legalizing cannabis and regulating it the way alcohol and tobacco are. Some 36 percent were opposed. 

Dale Gieringer, state coordinator of California NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), said the Rasmussen poll marked a high water moment for the legal marijuana movement, suggesting that it showed "the strongest support ever recorded."

According to the telephone poll in April, 47 percent of adults also "believe the country should legalize and tax marijuana in order to help solve the nation's fiscal problems." Forty-two percent of respondents disagreed, while 10 percent are undecided.

Another poll by Angus Reid also suggested that Americans broadly agreed that marijuana crimes should be punished less harshly than some others. Three of four Americans favor the use of fines or probation in lieu of criminal sanctions for marijuana offenders, according to the May poll.

In addition, 74 percent of respondents said they favored the imposition of "alternative penalties," such as fines, probation, or community service, rather than prison for violators of marijuana possession laws. By contrast, only 41 percent of respondents favored such penalties for credit-card fraud, and only one-third for drunk driving offenders.

A May poll by the University of Southern California Dornsife/Los Angeles Times, however, suggested that California voters still reject legal marijuana by similar margins to 2010. Prop. 19 failed with 54 percent voting against and 46 percent in favor. The USC poll found that 50 percent of California voters remain opposed to legal marijuana, while 46 percent are in favor of “general or recreational use by adults.”

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