Reefer Acceptance: Most Americans Now Support Legalized Pot

marijuana leaves

For the first time in four decades, most Americans say that marijuana should be legal.

A new survey by the Pew Research Center pegs support for legalized pot at 52 percent, an all-time high in more than 40 years of polling on the issue. In 1969, only 12 percent of Americans said marijuana should be legalized.

The survey queried a national sample of 1,501 adults reached by landline or cellphone from March 13 to March 17. The error for the survey is plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.

Generational attitudes

The Pew researchers found that support for marijuana legalization has risen among every age demographic. Millenials, or those born after 1980, are most supportive, with 65 percent saying pot should be legal. Gen Xers, born between 1965 and 1980, come in second, with 54 percent in favor of legal marijuana. That's a rise of 28 percent in that age group since 1994.

Half of Baby Boomers are now in favor of legalizing the drug, a rebound back to 1978 levels, when 47 percent of that generation favored legalization. Support for legalized pot dipped precipitously among Boomers in the 1980s and hit a low of 17 percent in 1990.

Older generations are less in favor of removing marijuana laws, with 32 percent of the Silent Generation (born between 1925 and 1942) and 14 percent of the Greatest Generation, born before 1924, in favor. [Trippy Tales: The History of 8 Hallucinogens]

Laws and enforcement

The rise in support comes with an increase in experience, as 48 percent of Americans said they've tried marijuana. A decade ago, that number was 38 percent. Only 12 percent have used marijuana in the past year, however.

Pot has become less of a moral issue, with only 32 percent saying smoking marijuana is morally wrong. That's an 18-percentage-point drop since 2006. Thriftiness may also play a role in pro-legalization attitudes: 72 percent of Americans say the cost of enforcing marijuana laws is more than it's worth.

Democrats are more likely than Republicans to believe that marijuana should be legal, at 59 percent versus 37 percent, respectively. But members of both parties are equally likely to say that the federal government shouldn't enforce marijuana laws in states that have legalized the drug. Colorado and Washington voters have approved the legalization of small amounts of marijuana for personal use, and a number of other states allow the use of marijuana for medical reasons.

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.