Changing attitudes toward Marijuana: Is legalization imminent?

With marijuana already legal in Colorado and Washington—and four other states prepared to put legalization initiatives on 2014 ballots—the U.S. is seeing a significant shift…

Marijuana legalization initiatives have made it to the ballot in many states this year. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

With marijuana already legal in Colorado and Washington—and four other states prepared to put legalization initiatives on 2014 ballots—the U.S. is seeing a significant shift in attitudes toward the drug.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center shows that Americans are much more willing to entertain the idea of marijuana legalization than in the past.

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At the same time that support for decriminalization of the drug grows, the public increasingly believes that the government should focus on drug treatment in place of prosecution.

These changing attitudes aren’t true for every demographic group, but they’re more and more common. It’s possible that within the next several years, marijuana will—like alcohol and cigarettes—be widely available legally for those who choose to partake in its use.

Survey Results

Pew Research Center canvassed Americans’ attitudes toward marijuana legalization as well as drug use and treatment on a broader scale.

According to their findings, 54 percent of Americans think marijuana should be legal. That’s a huge change from half a century ago, in 1969.

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More people than ever think legalizing marijuana is acceptable.

(Courtesry Pew Research Center)

While illicit drug use was common in the 1960s and 1970s, the Gallup poll at the time showed that only 12 percent of the population thought legalization was a good idea.

It’s only within the last few years that the majority of the country has reversed its opinion on the subject.

Another sign of changing attitudes toward marijuana is the percentage of people who feel that the drug is actually safer than a substance that’s already legal: alcohol.

Over two-thirds of the American population believes that “alcohol is more harmful to a person’s health than marijuana.”

Only 15 percent believe the reverse. In the case of marijuana’s legalization, 63 percent of people still predict that alcohol would do more harm to society.

Not many people thinking smoking marijuana is morally incorrect.

(Courtesy Pew Research Center)

Even President Obama has chimed in: according to the LA Times, the president was quoted as saying:

“I don’t think it [marijuana] is more dangerous than alcohol.”

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On the other hand, and maybe unsurprisingly, support for initiatives varies by age and political leaning. Pew found that the Millennial generation (born between 1981 and 1998) is most likely to support marijuana legalization; the Silent generation (born between 1928 and 1945) is least likely.

Additionally, Democrats are more likely to say “yes” to a marijuana initiative than Republicans.

Treatment, Not Prosecution

In a similar vein, a survey from 2013 showed that 72 percent of Americans think enforcing marijuana laws, in particular, costs more than it’s worth.

The increasing acceptance of the marijuana comes along with a desire to see effective treatment for addicts of harder drugs, such as heroin and cocaine.

According to a separate article from Pew Research, 67 percent of the public believes that the government’s money should be spent on “treatment for those who use illegal drugs” instead of additional prosecution, with that belief spanning numerous demographic groups.

In essence, many Americans feel that the cost of enforcing drug laws does less good than treatment or therapy would; as with other areas of health care, it might be that an ounce of prevention equals a pound of cure.

The Pew Research center conducted a survey measuring people's attitudes towards marijuana legalization.

(Courtesy Pew Research Center)

Why Now?

Since marijuana use isn’t new, the inevitable question arises: why are attitudes changing now?

According to Alison Holcomb, the ACLU attorney who wrote Washington’s marijuana legalization ballot measure, our changing attitudes are actually toward whether it’s ok to support reform, not whether it’s ok to use marijuana.

She suggested that it’s now more acceptable to be on the side of drug legalization, whereas in the past, that was much more of a taboo.

Part of the reason for that is the use of marijuana in medical situations, which is giving the drug a legitimacy that it lacked in previous decades.

That legitimacy is extending its reach to older groups, which have typically opposed marijuana legalization, and transcending the gap between medical use and recreational use.

Finally, the recently passed laws in Washington and Colorado—making recreational marijuana use legal—have given a serious boost to public acceptance in many quarters. Advocates in Oregon, Alaska and California, in particular, are hoping for similar laws to pass in 2014.

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