A recent poll conducted by Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling indicates that 58% of Americans support the legalization of marijuana. This is consistent with other recent survey data showing that public opinion is moving in a pro-legalization direction. In 2011, a Gallup poll showed 50% support for legalization for the first time. As with other recent surveys, the PPP polls finds that support for legalization is highest among younger people. But this is a generational effect in which each generation is more supportive of legalization than the one that came before, rather than a cohort effect in which the young are pro-legalization, but quickly turn against it once they get older. In the PPP survey, even people between the ages of 46 and 65 are far more likely to support legalization (44%) than those over 65 (32%).
The overall level of support for legalization in this poll is somewhat higher than in other surveys. We should be cautious about inferring that the true level of support is really as high as 58% unless and until we get confirmation from other polls. Nonetheless, the PPP poll is yet another indication that public opinion is moving in a pro-legalization direction.
The PPP survey also finds a 47-33 plurality that wants Obama to allow Colorado and Washington to implement their recently adopted referenda legalizing marijuana under state law, rather than use federal power to block them. Even 35% of Republicans agree that he should do so (though 46% of of them favor a federal crackdown).
As in many other surveys, PPP finds that Republicans (53%) are more likely to oppose legalization than Democrats (28%) or independents (38%). In this case, they are also more likely to support federal intervention against legalization at the state level – a paradoxical position for the party that claims to champion federalism. I summarized various conservative arguments for legalization here. See also this article by the late William F. Buckley.
I should emphasize that it is not my view that legalization is a good idea because a majority of the public now supports it. I believe majority public opinion is wrong about a great many things, including in opposing the legalization of many other drugs. For decades, it was wrong about marijuana legalization too. The fact that 50% or more of the public supports a given policy is only a very modest point in its favor, especially given widespread political ignorance. But changing public opinion is important because it opens up opportunities for legalization that did not exist before. In the short run, it could at least give President Obama the political cover he needs to decide to leave Colorado and Washington alone.