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For first time, most Americans support legalized marijuana

Linda FeldmannThe Christian Science Monitor
Growing marijuana plants. flickr / Bob Doran

For the first time, a major US poll has found that a majority of Americans support legalization of marijuana.

The Pew Research Center announced Thursday that 52 percent of Americans say that marijuana use should be made legal, versus 45 percent who say it should not. The trend line has been moving gradually in the direction of majority support for more than 20 years. In 1991, only 17 percent supported legalization, while 78 percent opposed.

As with gay marriage, which has also seen a sharp rise in support in the past few years, the Pew poll found major generational differences in views on marijuana. Among Millennials – those now aged 18 to 32 – support is at 65 percent, up from just 36 percent in 2008. Among Generation X, those born between 1965 and 1980, support has risen dramatically, from 28 percent in 1994 to 54 percent today.

Half of Baby Boomers support legalized marijuana today, and among the over-65 Silent Generation support has doubled since 2002 – from 17 percent to 32 percent.

Among other noteworthy findings in the Pew poll:

Nearly three in four Americans (72 percent) say government efforts to enforce marijuana laws cost more than they are worth. Sixty percent say the federal government should not enforce federal laws prohibiting marijuana use in states that have legalized it. Last November, voters in Colorado and Washington state approved the personal use of small amounts of marijuana. Some 48 percent of Americans say they have tried marijuana, up from 38 percent a decade ago. Republicans oppose legalization, while Democrats support it. Among Republicans, it’s 37 percent favoring legalization to 60 percent opposing. Among Democrats, 59 percent say legalize it and 39 percent say don’t. Marijuana’s image as a “gateway” drug is fading. Today, 38 percent of Americans agree that “for most people the use of marijuana leads to the use of hard drugs.” In 1977, 60 percent felt that way.

Despite the trends, those opposed to legalization are not giving up. In a column in the Washington Post, former Bush administration official Peter Wehner writes that as Republicans search for new issues to champion, fighting drug use and legalization should be one.

“Today, many parents rightly believe the culture is against them. Government policies should stand with responsible parents – and under no circumstances actively undermine them,” writes Mr. Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

“Drug legalization would do exactly that. It would send an unmistakable signal to everyone, including the young: Drug use is not a big deal.”

But in fact, Wehner writes, “the law is a moral teacher,” and government can play a role in the shaping of character. Therefore, “Republicans should prefer that it be a constructive one, which is why they should speak out forcefully and intelligently against drug legalization.”