A majority of Americans now say marijuana should be made legal, with far fewer viewing it as a gateway to harder drugs or as morally wrong, according to a poll released Thursday by the Pew Research Center.
By 52 percent to 45 percent, more say marijuana should be made legal than not, with support for legalization jumping 7 percentage points in two years and 20 points since the 2002 General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center.
The rapid change matches an increase in usage. In the new poll, nearly half of Americans reported trying marijuana at some point in their lifetime (48 percent), up 8 percentage points since 2010 and also a record high.
More people who have smoked in the past year say the experience was "just for fun," rather than because of a medical issue (47 vs. 30 percent), while 23 percent say they smoked for both reasons.
The overall shift in support is driven by wide acceptance among younger Americans as well as changing views among their elders. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of people born since 1980 (between ages 18 and 32) say marijuana should be legal. At the same time, baby boomers and Generation Xers have become far more supportive than in the early 1990s, with at least half of each now supporting legalization.
Six in 10 Democrats and independents now support legalizing marijuana, but an equal majority of Republicans are opposed. Support has grown across party lines in recent years, yet the poll finds a growing ideological schism within the GOP. Only 29 percent of conservative Republicans support legalization, but a 53 percent majority of moderate and liberal Republicans back the idea, a number that has grown 17 percentage points since 2010.
As public opinion has shifted, the politics of marijuana have become more complicated. Laws legalizing recreational marijuana use that passed in Washington state and Colorado last year remain in limbo because of the federal government's ban on production, possession and sale of the drug. Six in 10 Americans say federal laws should not be enforced in states that have decided to allow marijuana use.
Some lawmakers have questioned the value of federal laws. In March, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said people shouldn't go to jail for nonviolent drug crimes such as marijuana use. Wide majorities of Democrats and Republicans agree that government efforts to enforce marijuana laws cost more than they are worth.
Stigma and fear of marijuana have dropped sharply. Far fewer people see marijuana leading to harder drugs today (38 percent) than in the 1970s (60 percent), and only 1 in 3 say smoking marijuana is morally wrong (32 percent), down 18 percentage points from 2006.
The poll was conducted March 13 to 17 among a random national sample of 1,501 adults aged 18 and older. The margin of error for overall results is plus or minus 2.9 percentage points. Results for the share of Americans smoking marijuana were based on a separate survey done in January.
Pollster Scott Clement is with Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media.