Even as the national experiment legalizing recreational pot spread this week to Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C., a new poll suggests the enthusiasm among voters has hit a plateau.
A majority, 51%, favors legalizing marijuana, according to a Gallup Poll. That's about where support has been since 2011, but a drop from the 58% who told Gallup last year they supported legalization. Last year's poll came just after Colorado and Oregon had voted to allow marijuana to be sold in stores and were in the process of setting up the market.
Since the last poll, marijuana stores have opened their doors in those states and some parts of the rollout have been bumpy. Gallup's analysts wrote in a blog post that public support may have been weakened by several unwelcome headlines in Colorado around the sale of pot-infused candies, cookies and other sweets that would appeal to children.
But other factors could also explain why support for legalization appears to have hit a plateau after a decade of steady increases, Gallup said.
What appeared to be a surge of support last year came at a time of great momentum in the marijuana movement, and supporters were preparing to put legalization on the ballot in California and other states in 2014. When they opted to wait another two years in most places, that momentum slowed, as did discussion of the political movement in the press.
"The relative lack of attention to new legalization initiatives through 2014 may have caused public support to subside," the Gallup analysts wrote.
Legalization advocates say the drop was expected.
The surge of support Gallup reported last year "was something of an outlier," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. He attributed it to the poll's timing, noting it was conducted just after the Obama administration gave Washington and Colorado the green light to proceed with implementing their initiatives and "before media began to focus on the actual challenges of transforming a previously illegal, unregulated market into a legal, regulated one."
Support for legalization varies widely from one part of the country to another. It is particularly strong on the West Coast and Northeast. Those are the areas organizers are planning to target for a series of legalization initiatives in 2016.
Solid majorities of 57% still support legalization in the coastal states.
Pot is a much tougher sell in the Midwest and the South, where supporters of legalization are in the minority. In the Midwest, support plunged 13 points since last year and now stands at 45%. In the South, 47% support legalization, the poll found.
Cannabis advocates are also having a tough time converting conservatives, despite their success in Alaska, a GOP stronghold, and their contention that marijuana legalization is not a partisan issue. The weak support among conservatives – 31% favor legalization – does not bode well for their plans to gradually shift the fight from the states to Congress, which will soon be entirely controlled by the Republicans.
Opponents of marijuana, eager to rebound from losses Tuesday in Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia, say they are encouraged by Gallup's findings.
"This poll shows that legalization is far from inevitable and the fight to stop it is far from over," said a statement from Kevin A. Sabet, president of advocacy group Smart Approaches to Marijuana.
"In 2014, marijuana stores opened in Colorado and Washington, and that is right when support plummeted. The lesson here is that legalization in theory does not look like legalization in practice."