In California, cradle of the marijuana movement, a new poll has found a majority of voters do not support legalization, even as they overwhelmingly back medicinal use for "patients with terminal and debilitating conditions."
Eighty percent of voters support doctor-recommended use for severe illness, a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll found. But only 46% of respondents said they support legalization of "general or recreational use by adults," while 50% oppose it. Those against using pot were more adamant in their position, with 42% saying they felt "strongly" about it, compared with 33% for proponents.
The survey found opinions have not measurably changed since voters defeated the legalization initiative Prop. 19 in 2010 by similar margins. And oddly, given the state's long role as the leader of marijuana decriminalization and cultivation, support for sanctioning its general use here appears to lag behind the sentiment in the rest of the country.
A Gallup poll in October showed support nationwide for legalizing pot at 50% for the first time since the pollster began asking the question in 1969, when only 12% of Americans supported it. A Rasmussen Reports survey this month found 56% of voters favored authorizing and regulating cannabis sales like alcohol and tobacco sales. With this uptick in popularity, marijuana advocates succeeded in getting initiatives qualified for the upcoming November ballot in Colorado and Washington, while they failed in California.
Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, said the California numbers suggest voters are concerned about the way the Compassionate Use Act, passed in 1996 to permit medical marijuana, has been carried out.
"They like the idea of providing marijuana for medical use, but they're worried that the law is being abused," he said.
Cities and counties have been struggling with how to rein in the proliferation of pot shops. Some law enforcement agencies have targeted them, while some have been more lenient. Some cities have tried to ban them, and courts have issued conflicting opinions up and down the state as to whether, where and how they can operate.
The federal government, which does not recognize medical marijuana as legal, has been shutting down dispensaries and growers, while threatening landlords who rent to them and cities that give them official sanction by granting permits.
Dale Gieringer, coordinator of the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said that the state needs to regulate its medical marijuana distribution better before the public will go for wider use.
His organization and Americans for Safe Access, among other marijuana groups, are backing an Assembly bill that would create a new state board to enact and enforce statewide regulations on growing, transporting and selling marijuana. It would require all dispensaries to register with the state, and allow cities and counties to tax sales.
"Voters are hesitant to liberalize the marijuana laws any further until the chaos of the current system is worked out," he said.
The new poll of about 1,000 registered voters taken May 17-21 statewide showed many more voters used marijuana "recreationally" than the 3% who said they used it as medicine. Just less than 38% said they had indulged in pot for pleasure at least once in their lives — and 9% had in the last year. The questioners did not ask whether those who used the drug recreationally acquired it on the street or with a doctor's recommendation from a dispensary. The poll margin of error is 3.5 percentage points.
The Bay Area was the only region of the state where a majority — 55% — favors legalization, compared with 41% in Southern California and 49% of voters in Los Angeles County. There was a pronounced drop-off with age, with 58% support among those in their late teens and twenties, slowly slipping to 51% for those between 50 and 64, and plummeting to 28% of voters older than 64.
As for political affiliation, only 28% of Republicans and 50% of Democrats liked the idea of legalization. Independents were the ones to give it a boost, with 60% favoring it.
"It's the decline-to-state voters, those kind of independent ones that don't align with either party, who are the ones really pushing this," said Dave Kanevsky, research director for American Viewpoint, a Republican polling firm, which conducted the poll jointly with the Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner.
One of those independents surveyed was Daniel, a 41-year-old who works in business development in the Inland Empire and did not want to give his last name.
"It's no worse than alcohol or tobacco that are currently legalized," he said. "People should absolutely not be persecuted for it."
He said he "partied" with marijuana in his youth and grew out of it as an adult. While he feels that it has legitimate medical benefits for some, he suspects that other users are gaming the medical marijuana laws but is not particularly bothered by that.
"I don't feel it's a gateway drug," he said. "I feel the biggest gateway drug we have is alcohol because it lowers your inhibitions more than anything else."
Jim Feller, a 55-year-old Republican in Shasta County, said the exploitation of medical marijuana laws in his area, where his neighbor is growing 25 plants, has strengthened his antipathy toward pot and legalization.
"I just feel it's not working," he said. "There is so much crime related to drugs up here."
Pat Wray, 65, a registered Republican in Temecula, said she believes that the terminally ill should have access to marijuana.
"My goodness gracious, who wouldn't want them to have something to ease the pain?" she said.
She noted that she grew up in the 1960s and doesn't demonize pot smokers. "Look, I drink my glass of wine and occasionally have a margarita." But she said she feared marijuana did lead to harder drugs, and was wary about legalizing it.
"You just don't want to open Pandora's Box."