PULSE: Marijuana Attitude Shift Adjustment

By Published on .

Tolerance for the drug is rising, especially when it comes to medicinal use.

American opinions about marijuana have come a long way since the 1938 film Reefer Madness, and even since President Bill Clinton claimed he "didn't inhale." While overall usage of the drug has dropped in recent years after climbing for decades, Americans have become increasingly tolerant of the "softer" drug for recreational or medicinal use and, to a lesser extent, when it involves possession or trafficking.

Reflecting this shift in opinion, laws and public policy have slowly become more accepting. Currently, only eight states (Maine, Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado, Nevada, Hawaii and Alaska) allow the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, but if American public opinion holds sway, that number stands to increase. In the past six years, 19 different state initiatives to ease regulations on marijuana have become law. More Americans believe drug use should be treated as a disease (52 percent) than as a crime (35 percent), according to a 2001 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. And whether they approve of it or not, the vast majority of Americans--74 percent--say we are losing the drug war.

However, Americans are less permissive when marijuana is not prescribed by doctors. During last year's elections, pro-marijuana referendums in three states were defeated. All three of these measures focused on general possession, not on usage specifically for medicinal purposes. In Nevada a measure that would have legalized possession of up to three ounces of the drug failed to gain the support it needed. And Ohio voters passed on a proposal that would have required judges to order treatment in lieu of prison sentences for certain drug offenders.


According to an October 2002 Time/CNN poll, nearly half of Americans (47 percent) have smoked pot at least once. Gallup polls indicate that a greater share of people have sampled the drug over the last 30 years or so, but not to the level reflected in the Time/CNN survey. According to Gallup data gathered in 1999, 34 percent of Americans admitted trying marijuana, up from 11 percent in 1972 and 4 percent in 1969. (Perhaps to elicit honest responses, those polled were reminded that all of their answers were confidential.) Furthermore, phrasing the question in the following way, "Have you, yourself, ever happened to try marijuana?" seemed to imply that usage could have been inadvertent or that the smoker was somehow not responsible for his or her action.

Men are more likely than women to have indulged (43 percent compared with 27 percent), and whites are more likely than blacks to say they've tried pot (35 percent of whites versus 25 percent of nonwhites). Interestingly, there is little difference in usage among those under the age of 50. Nearly the same proportion of 18- to 29-year-olds and 30- to 49-year-olds say they've tried the drug (46 percent and 45 percent, respectively), though the number dips considerably for older Americans (14 percent of those over 50). Nor is there much difference in usage among city dwellers (38 percent), suburbanites (31 percent) and rural residents (34 percent). Republicans and Democrats have also smoked pot in similar proportions (33 percent versus 31 percent). At the same time, teen usage is dropping: In 1999, 20 percent of teenagers said in a Gallup Youth Survey that they had tried marijuana, down from 38 percent in 1981.


The area most open to a liberalization of drug laws is the therapeutic use of marijuana. According to an October 2002 Time/

CNN poll, the vast majority of Americans (80 percent) believe adults should be allowed to use marijuana for medicinal purposes. The support level has increased greatly in recent years. In a 2001 poll for the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, in response to the question "Regardless of what you think about the personal non-medical use of marijuana, do you think doctors should or should not be allowed to prescribe marijuana for medical purposes to treat their patients?" 73 percent said they should. In a 1997 poll for the Lindesmith Center, 60 percent favored "allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana for medicinal purposes for seriously or terminally ill patients." The inclusion of specific language--particularly "prescribed" or "supported by" a physician, and "seriously ill" or "terminally ill" patient--likely played a role in the level of support.

Because laws on medical marijuana use are being tested on a state-by-state basis, many organizations have conducted research in individual states. In Maryland, for example, a 1999 poll found that 73 percent of residents were in favor of medical use of marijuana when prescribed by a physician, even as 75 percent opposed general legalization of the drug. In Wisconsin, a 2002 survey of 600 residents conducted by Chamberlain Research Consultants found 80 percent favored a law that would "allow seriously ill or terminally ill patients to use marijuana for medical purposes if supported by their physician."


Most people's approval of marijuana use remains restricted to medicinal purposes. According to a 2002 Time/CNN poll, only one-third of Americans (34 percent) want marijuana to be legalized. That percentage, however, has nearly doubled since 1986. And

72 percent of Americans believe that people arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana should be fined rather than jailed. Yet when asked in Gallup polls whether "small amounts of marijuana" should be "treated as a criminal offense," a majority said it should: 51 percent in 2000, up from 41 percent in 1977.

Nonetheless, in Gallup polls over the past 34 years, the percentage of Americans favoring legalization has risen. The query "Do you think the use of marijuana should be made legal, or not?" is very general with regard to the purpose of use. Interestingly, the question does not go so far as to ask whether marijuana should be legalized with regard to trade (buying and selling is not addressed specifically in the question). Not surprisingly, younger Americans are more inclined to favor legalization.

In a more strongly worded question focusing on punishment, as asked in a Pew Research Center for the People and the Press poll of 2001, the percentage of Americans open to legalization increases. When asked "Do you think the possession of small amounts of marijuana should or should not be treated as a criminal offense?" 46 percent say it should not (versus 49 percent who still believe it should). Women, especially black women, are more likely than men to believe possessing pot should be a crime.


  • One-third of Americans favor legalization of marijuana. Support for legalization has risen nearly threefold since 1969.
  • A majority of Americans are in favor of decriminalizing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, such as to ease nausea or pain due to cancer or AIDS. The most recent polls show 8 in 10 Americans approve of the right to such usage.
  • Several surveys indicate that teen usage has declined, signaling a shift away from recreational use. According to the University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future survey, 48 percent of high school seniors from the class of 2002 tried pot, down from a peak level of 60 percent in 1979. Gallup Youth Surveys show overall teen usage dropping almost 50 percent over the past 20 years.
Most Popular