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updated 4/15/2015 2:15:56 PM ET 2015-04-15T18:15:56

Americans are almost evenly split on the question of whether marijuana should be legalized, and a new poll shows that people's opinions line up with whether they think the health benefits of marijuana outweigh its harms.

A slim majority (53 percent) of Americans now favor the legalization of marijuana, according to a poll published today (April 14) by the Pew Research Center.

The poll also found that people who support marijuana legalization cite its possible health benefits and say it is not more dangerous than other drugs. In contrast, opponents of marijuana legalization say the drug is dangerous for both individuals and society, according to the new study.

Scientific research has indeed shown there are both benefits and dangers of marijuana use. For example, studies suggest that marijuana can ease nausea in people undergoing chemotherapy, relieve certain types of pain and possibly curb epileptic seizures.

However, other research ties daily pot use to brain changes, and it has been shown that chronic marijuana users who started smoking in their teen years have lower IQs than people who never used the drug during adolescence. [ Where Americans Smoke and Grow Marijuana (Infographic) ]

Health concerns and benefits

In the new poll, the Pew Research Center surveyed 1,500 adults about their views on marijuana.

People who believe marijuana should be legalized are more likely to see the drug as innocuous or even beneficial, according to the poll results. About 41 percent of people who favor legalization said the drug had health benefits, and 36 percent said it was no worse than other drugs.

Of those who oppose legalization, about 43 percent said they believe the drug is bad for both individuals and society. About 30 percent of opponents say marijuana holds a potential for abuse and addiction, according to the survey. About 11 percent said it was a gateway to harder drugs, while 8 percent said it was especially harmful for young people.

"It's a drug that makes you stupid. It affects your judgment and motor skills, and in the long term, it makes you lazy," one 52-year-old male respondent said when he was asked why he opposed marijuana legalization.

Others cited potential health concerns. "I'm thinking of my child. I don't want her to try this. I know it's not good for her health or brain," said a 33-year-old female respondent.

About 7 percent of marijuana-legalization opponents are OK with the legalization of medical marijuana.

Long-term shift

Opinion research shows that Americans' stance on marijuana legalization has shifted dramatically over the past few decades. In 1986, just 13 percent of Republicans and 17 percent of Democrats said they believed marijuana should be legalized. Since then, support for marijuana legalization has risen sharply across people of all generations, except those who are now between 70 and 87 years old, historical Pew survey data suggests.

In the new poll, about 21 percent of those who supported legalization said they had previously opposed legalization but had changed their minds. That compares with just 7 percent who said they changed their mind from supporting marijuana legalization to opposing it.

When they were asked about the enforcement of drug laws, however, people were less divided: About 78 percent of survey respondents agreed that federal drug laws should not be enforced in states where the drug is legal. And just 15 percent said they would be annoyed if people smoked marijuana in the privacy of their own homes. Only 19 percent of people said that marijuana use needed to be policed.

In contrast, about two-thirds of respondents said they would be bothered by the public use of the drug.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

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