President Barack Obama drew a lot of media attention when he said earlier this month that he didn’t think marijuana was “more dangerous than alcohol,” though he opposes legalization. Turns out, a number of Americans may agree with him, but would like to see laws go a step further to legalize marijuana.
An estimated 55 percent of Americans support legislative efforts to legalize marijuana, according to a newly released NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. And people told pollsters that they would back laws similar to those passed in Colorado and Washington state, where adults older than age of 21 are permitted to possess limited amounts of pot for personal use.
Still, nearly a quarter of the country does not approve of laws to legalize marijuana, but would tolerate them, the report says. Twenty-four percent would not actively seek to repeal laws backed by state voters and state legislatures.
The poll results reflect a gradual shift in the public’s opinion about marijuana and what is considered a “Schedule I” drug under federal law, making it worthy of the government’s strictest treatment.
But the harshest treatment has been reserved for people of color, President Obama pointed out in an interview with New Yorker magazine’s David Remnick. Comparing the treatment of White kids versus Black and Latino kids, the President told Remnick that he is troubled that “middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do. And African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties.”
Indeed, African Americans were nearly four times as likely as Whites to be arrested on charges of marijuana possession in 2010, even though the two groups used the drug at similar rates, according to the New York Times, which cites federal data released last June.
This disparity had increased steadily from a decade earlier, and in some states, including Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois, Blacks were nearly eight times as likely to be arrested, the report says.
During the same time, public attitudes have eased toward marijuana and a number of states decriminalized its use. But about half of all drug arrests in 2011 were on marijuana-related charges, roughly the same portion as in 2010, the report says.
But the President did urge for caution in the movement for the legalization of marijuana because it raises “some difficult line-drawing issues. If marijuana is fully legalized and at some point folks say, ‘Well, we can come up with a negotiated dose of cocaine that we can show is not any more harmful than vodka,’ are we open to that? If somebody says, ‘We’ve got a finely calibrated dose of meth, it isn’t going to kill you or rot your teeth,’ are we OK with that?
“Those who argue that legalizing marijuana is a panacea and it solves all these social problems I think are probably overstating the case,” he continued. “There is a lot of hair on that policy. And the experiment that’s going to be taking place in Colorado and Washington is going to be, I think, a challenge.”
But the new poll results show that the politics of marijuana are still up in the air, divided along party lines and age groups, gender, race and geography.
Americans aged 18 to 34, for example, favor legal marijuana by a 49-point margin. While Americans older than the age of 65 oppose legalizing pot 59 percent to 38 percent. The age groups in between are divided on the question of legalization, the poll found.
In the political arena, Democrats favor legalizing marijuana by a 34-point margin, while Republicans oppose it by 23 points. Among independents, 60 percent favor legalization, while 39 percent oppose it.
Whites are also less supportive of legalization proposals (favoring them by a 6-point margin) as compared to African American and Hispanic respondents, who favor legalization by 19 and 17-point margins, respectively, the poll found.
The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll was conducted Jan. 22-25 and has a plus-minus 3.5 percent margin of error for its sample of all respondents. Subsamples have larger margins of error.