Poll: Majority of Americans Favor Legalizing Marijuana

April 2, 2011 – Legalizing marijuana use has been a debate that waxes and wanes in various political climates but has always remained a hot issue with smoking embers. However, a recent poll finds most Americans support legalizing the drug.

Several states have legalized it for medical purposes and some have considered legalizing it in a broader sense. Three quarters of Americans surveyed said they support legalization of marijuana for medical treatment (74 percent) with almost half saying they strongly support it (48 percent).

However, the Harris Poll conducted in late February also found that a significant amount of Americans say they oppose the legalization of medical marijuana in their state (18 percent), and even fewer–7 percent–said they are not sure what they think about the issue.

Despite widespread approval of cannabis for medical use, lighting up a doobie for recreational purposes is far less agreeable. Two in five supported legalizing marijuana for recreational use in their state (42 percent) and half opposed it (49 percent). Some 7 percent said they were unsure and 2 percent declined to answer.

The results of the poll varied by region. Adults in the East were most supportive of legalizing marijuana for both medical use and recreational use, 80 percent and 50 percent respectively. People in the West were the next most supportive, with 76 percent supporting legalizing medical marijuana and 50 percent saying recreational use was ok.

Some 74 percent of Midwesterners supported medical marijuana legalization, but fewer than two in five okayed it for recreational use (39 percent). Southerners were the least supportive in general with only 69 percent supporting medical marijuana legalization and 34 percent for recreational use.

Marijuana has been legalized for certain medical uses in 15 states, and possession of the drug has been decriminalized in various places. California recently voted on whether or not to legalize it completely. The measure failed to pass.

Differences by Region

Adults in the East are most supportive of legalizing marijuana for both medical use (80%) and recreational use (50%). The West is the next most supportive region-76% support legalizing medical marijuana and 50% say so for recreational marijuana. While three quarters of Midwesterners support medical marijuana legalization (74%), less than two in five say so for recreational use (39%) and Southerners are least supportive of both medical marijuana legalization (69%) and marijuana legalized for recreational use (34%).

Who Should Make the Decision

While most Americans support legalizing medical marijuana, there is no consensus about legalizing marijuana for recreational use and who should decide whether or not to legalize it. A plurality of 44% of adults say it should be a state decision, 40% say it should be a federal decision, and 14% are not at all sure. There again are some regional differences-over half of Westerners (52%) think marijuana legalization should be a state decision compared to fewer in the South (44%), Midwest (42%) and East (38%) who say the same. Easterners are most likely to say it should be a federal decision (47%).

What Would the Result Be

If marijuana was legalized generally, majorities think it would cause an increase in both the number of people who use marijuana (68%) and the amount of marijuana used (68%). However, majorities also think it would increase tax revenue (75%), with 51% saying it would cause a large increase in tax revenue, as well as an increase in the consistency and standardization of marijuana used (59%). Substantial pluralities say that legalizing marijuana generally would cause a decrease in the crime rate (41%) and the amount of money spent on prisons/prisoners (44%).

So What?

Marijuana has been legalized for certain medical uses in 15 states, possession of the drug has been decriminalized in various places, and California recently voted on whether or not to legalize it completely (they voted not to do so). Americans may favor legalizing the drug for medical purposes, but many questions remain unanswered such as: what medical issues warrant the use of marijuana? Where should it be dispensed? Who should regulate production and distribution? Furthermore, some experts believe much more work is needed to ascertain the risks and benefits of marijuana use.


This Harris Poll was conducted online within the United States between February 14 to 21, 2011 among 3,171 adults (aged 18 and over). Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online.

All sample surveys and polls, whether or not they use probability sampling, are subject to multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, Harris Interactive avoids the words “margin of error” as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.

Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in Harris Interactive surveys. The data have been weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population. Because the sample is based on those who agreed to participate in the Harris Interactive panel, no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

These statements conform to the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.


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