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Public attitudes on marijuana shifting quickly

Pew Research Center

On a variety of social and cultural issues, public attitudes are changing rapidly, and in general, are moving in a progressive direction. But as part of this discussion, let's not forget opinions on marijuana use, which have changed dramatically just over the last few years. The Pew Research Center has been polling on the issue for more than four decades, and its new report is the first ever that shows a majority of Americans now favor of marijuana legalization.

Not surprisingly, there are significant differences among age groups -- adults under 30 are far more likely to support legalization than older generations -- but just since 2010, the increase in support is across the board.

Even basic assumptions about use of the drug have changed. As recently as 2006, 50% of Americans said smoking marijuana is "morally wrong," but today, the same percentage said this is "not a moral issue." Whereas most Americans used to see marijuana as a "gateway drug" -- the belief that people start with pot, which then leads to the use of harder and more dangerous drugs -- now, only 38% of the country believes this.

What's more, 72% of Americans believe government efforts to enforce marijuana "cost more than they are worth," and of particular interest after last year's elections, 60% believe the federal government should not enforce federal laws in states that allow for marijuana use.

Though support has increased among people of every political party by similar amounts in recent years, there is still a difference in partisan attitudes -- 59% of Democrats support legalization, as do 60% of independents, but the number drops to 37% among Republicans.

Still, if this is the next big issue in the culture war, the trend is unmistakable. And if this shift can lead to a constructive conversation about revisiting drug laws and the incarceration of non-violent drug users, the country would benefit enormously.