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Harris Poll: 81% Favor Legalizing Medical Marijuana

Four in five support legalizing medical marijuana & half support recreational legalization.
Many adults also believe marijuana is no more hazardous than alcohol.


By Harris

Last month, Georgia decriminalized marijuana, making it the twenty-sixth jurisdiction (Washington, D.C. included) to legalize marijuana for medical purposes. A new Harris Poll finds that the growing acceptability of marijuana among state lawmakers reflects attitudinal shifts amongst the general American public since 2011. Support for the legalization of marijuana for both medical treatment and recreational use has increased by seven percentage points over the past four years.

Currently, four in five adults (81%) favor legalizing marijuana for medical use, up from 2011 when three quarters of Americans (74%) indicated the same. Meanwhile, half of Americans are supportive of legalizing marijuana for recreational use (49%), up from the two fifths (42%) who felt that way in 2011.

  • Nearly nine in ten Democrats and Independents are in favor of legalizing marijuana for medical treatment (87% & 86%, respectively) and over half support recreational use (58% & 55%, respectively)
  • While a majority – albeit a slimmer one – of Republicans also support the legalization medical marijuana (69% support, 23% oppose), a similar majority opposes legalizing marijuana for recreational use (27% support, 65% oppose)

These are some of the results of The Harris Poll® of 2,221 U.S. adults surveyed online between February 11 and 17, 2015. Full results of this study, including data tables, can be found here.

Federal law or each state for itself?

As for who should be making the big legalization decision, 44% favor each state resolving the issue for itself, while 35% favor a single law handed down by the federal government.

  • In keeping with their party’s state’s-rights principles, 51% of Republicans believe the decision should be made at the state level, while three in ten (30%) support a nationwide federal ruling.
  • Independents share similar sentiments, though by a smaller margin (47% state vs. 35% federal).
  • Meanwhile, Democrats are the most divided of the bunch. A two-fifths plurality (42%) believe it should be a federal decision that applies to all states, while 37% would prefer state-by-state decision-making.

Potential consequences

When asked about the effects legalizing marijuana might have, expectations have not changed much since 2011. Then and now, three quarters of adults (75%) expect tax revenues will increase post legalization.

Seven in ten Americans believe the amount of marijuana used will increase (68% then, 70% now) along with the number of people who use marijuana (68% then, 69% now). A majority of Americans also anticipate an increase in the consistency and standardization of the marijuana used (59% in 2011 and 2015).

Meanwhile, expectations are split when it comes to the effect the legalization of marijuana will have on the amount of money spent on prisons/prisoners and the crime rate. Thirty-six percent of adults anticipate a decrease in prison spending, while two in ten each believe decriminalized marijuana will cause an increase in prison spending (20%) or no change at all (22%).

In addition, a third of Americans (34%) believe the crime rate will decrease, while 28% feel crime will increase, and 22% anticipate no change at all.

Marijuana vs. Alcohol

Aside from a thirteen-year blip known as Prohibition, citizens of the United States have legally sold and consumed alcohol since the country’s founding. In contrast, for the larger part of our nation’s history, selling and using marijuana had been illegal.

When asked whether alcohol or marijuana is more problematic, majorities feel neither is more or less hazardous; however, when focusing on those who pointed out one or the other specifically, marijuana is consistently seen as less dangerous or harmful than alcohol.

  • Impairs one’s ability to drive a vehicle: 68% both equally, 22% alcohol, & 3% marijuana
  • Excessive use can be detrimental to overall mental health: 62%, 21%, & 7%
  • Excessive use can be detrimental to overall physical health: 61%, 25%, & 4%
  • Regular use over a long period can be detrimental to overall physical health: 56%, 27%, & 5%
  • Addictive: 56%, 25%, & 9%
  • Regular use over a long period can be detrimental to overall mental health: 56%, 20%, & 10%

On the matter of being a gateway to other drugs, while a plurality (36%) still feels this describes both equally, after that, there is equal support for it being either a better description of marijuana (22%) or not an accurate description of either substance (21%).

Americans are more divided when it comes to which is most dangerous to use even in moderation: 32% say both are equally dangerous in moderation, while 31% say neither is.

To see other recent Harris Polls, please visit their new website, TheHarrisPoll.com.

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