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Poll: Most Americans Not Buying Feds' Drug War Propaganda

As our views about marijuana's harm potential change, an historic majority of Americans say pot should be legal.
 
 
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As Washington and Colorado prepare to implement the legal, regulated sale of marijuana to adults, new polling data from the Pew Research Center reveals that a federal policy following the will of the people would loosen up pot laws all over the country. According to Pew, Americans not only want pot legal, but believe marijuana is more medically beneficial, and less potentially dangerous or morally wrong, than the federal government suggests.   According to the Pew Research Center’s data, a historic number of  Americans -- a majority of 52% --  now support marijuana legalization, and even more -- 60% of Americans -- say the federal government should not intervene in state-sanctioned marijuana laws.  While younger Americans (65% of Millenials and 54% of Generation Xers) are the most likely to support marijuana legalization, Baby Boomers (50%) and the older Silent Generation (32%) are increasingly favoring marijuana legalization, too.

Public opinion has been rapidly shifting in favor of reformed marijuana laws,  with support rising exponentially in the past three years.  The Gallup Poll found that, over the past three decades, the belief that marijuana use leads to hard drugs has decreased substantially, from  60% in a 1997 survey to 38% in 2012. At the same time that fewer Americans are reporting marijuana is a "gateway drug", fewer Americans are saying that marijuana use is a moral failure. According to Gallup, in a survey earlier this year, 32% of Americans said smoking marijuana is morally wrong -- an 18 point decrease since 2006.

Perhaps this shifting attitude is why nearly three-quarters of Americans now say government efforts to enforce marijuana laws cost more than they are worth. Similarly, most independents (64%) Democrats (59%) and Republicans (57%) agree that the federal government should not enforce federal marijuana laws in states that allow the legal use of marijuana. While federal law classifying marijuana as a Schedule I substance maintains that it is a medically useless substance, 77% of Americans (with only modest partisan divides) say marijuana has legitimate medical use.

Advocates for drug policy reform are interpreting the data as a sign of changing times that demand a change in policy.  “I’ve always tended to be cautious in claiming that we’ve hit the ‘tipping point’ on marijuana legalization,”  Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the  Drug Policy Alliance, said in a press release, “But we’re there now. And I’d say we’re trailing marriage equality by just a half-step, even if far fewer elected officials are willing to join publicly with us as yet.”

Interestingly, data from the Pew Research Center poll also lends support to legalization advocates' argument that marijuana legalization does not lead to an increase in marijuana use, as some drug warriors have suggested. The percentage of people reporting that they used pot in the past year (about 1 in 10) or in their lifetimes (about half) is the same in states that have legalized marijuana as those that have not.

Similarly, state pot laws do not appear to strongly influence opinions about marijuana legalization.  Fifty-five percent people in states that have loosened pot laws (by allowing medical marijuana or decriminalizing/legalizing personal use) favor full legalization, compared to 50% of those in states with a more draconian pot policy.

Tom Angell, founder of the Marijuana Majority, said in a statement,  "It's time for politicians to catch up to the voters on this issue. Not too long ago, it was widely accepted in political circles that elected officials who wanted to get re-elected needed to act 'tough' on drugs and go out of their way to support the continued criminalization of marijuana. The opposite is quickly becoming true. A majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana, and you're going to start seeing more politicians running toward our movement instead of away from it, just as we've seen happen with marriage equality recently."

Kristen Gwynne is an associate editor and drug policy reporter at AlterNet.  Follow her on Twitter: @KristenGwynne