WASHINGTON -- Fifty percent of Americans favor legalizing marijuana, according to a new Gallup poll, a record high. And those numbers, up from just 36 percent in 2006, could have significant implications for state and national marijuana policy.
The past two decades has seen a marked shift in public opinion on the issue. Asked in 1970 if people thought the drug should be made legal, only 12 percent of respondents agreed. That number rose to 28 percent percent by the late 1970s, dipped slightly lower in the 1980s, and then rose to 36 percent in 2006.
Support has spiked in the past five years, with 40 percent of respondents favoring legalization in 2009 before numbers jumped another 10 percent, according to the annual crime survey conducted Oct. 6-9, with majorities of men, liberals and 18-29 year-olds currently support legalizing cannabis.
The poll numbers come as federal prosecutors are cracking down on medical marijuana dispensaries, vowing to shutter state-licensed marijuana shops regulated by local governments and threatening landlords with property seizures.
“The latest poll results point to the absurdity and even venality of persisting with harsh prohibitionist policies,” said Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, in a statement on Monday. “No other law is enforced so harshly and pervasively yet deemed unnecessary by so many Americans. Spending billions of dollars and arresting over 800,000 people annually for violating marijuana laws now represents not just foolish public policy but also an inappropriate and indecent use of police powers to favor one side of a cultural and political debate.”
Thom Mrozek, spokesman for California-based U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr., told HuffPost in an email on Friday there was no particular incident that prompted the enforcement actions. "Across the state, we have seen a fairly significant increase in the problem over the past couple of years," he said. "And, at least in our district, our actions were prompted in part by widespread concern among local officials."
Last week U.S. Attorney Laura E. Duffy, whose district includes San Diego County, announced plans to target media outlets advertising pot for medicinal purposes. "I'm not just seeing print advertising, I'm actually hearing radio and seeing TV advertising," she said in an interview with California Watch and KQED. "It's gone mainstream. Not only is it inappropriate – one has to wonder what kind of message we're sending to our children."
The three other U.S. attorneys charged with enforcing state laws have not signaled support for Duffy's line of attack.
Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and a retired Baltimore narcotics cop, cited the new polling numbers as well as a recent call for legalization from the California Medical Assn., the largest doctor group in the state, as evidence that the tides of public opinion have turned.
"The Obama administration's escalation of the 'war on drugs' and its attacks on state medical marijuana laws are only giving more and more Americans the opportunity to realize just how ridiculous and harmful our prohibition-based drug laws are," said Franklin in a statement on Monday. "These numbers from Gallup, as well as the California Medical Association's recent endorsement of marijuana legalization, show that momentum is on the side of reformers, so it's no wonder the drug warriors are getting scared and ramping up their attacks. People are clearly waking up to the fact that we can no longer afford the fiscal and human costs of this failed 'war on drugs.' Savvy politicians would do well to take heed."