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Up in Smoke

Support for Pot Prop. 19 Grows as Public’s Backing for Legalization Climbs Higher


In the haze of memory, aging liberal boomers may recall California in the 1960s as a permissive playground of public forbearance and freedom to consume mass quantities of marijuana.

In fact, new data show the Summer of Love era was marked by widespread disapproval and intolerant public attitudes about the use of pot — in sharp contrast to more laissez-faire views of voters across the state today. As Californians prepare to cast ballots on Proposition 19, which would effectively legalize possession of small quantities of marijuana for personal use, a Field Poll report on four decades of research shows that nearly four times as many voters now support such a move as did in 1969.

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The study comes as Field, which represents the gold standard of public opinion surveys in California, reports that a significant plurality of voters now supports Prop. 19, which also proposes taxation of the production, sales, and distribution of pot. After trailing three months ago, proponents of the measure have pushed ahead of those who oppose it, as awareness of the measure has increased across the state.

Overall, 74 percent of those surveyed favor the state’s policy on medical marijuana.

By 49 percent, likely voters now say they expect to vote yes on the measure (and 42 percent say they’ll vote no), a major, 11-point swing in favor of it compared to a poll taken in July, when the initiative trailed by four points. Significantly, 84 percent of the likely electorate now says they have heard about Prop. 19, far more than any of the other eight propositions on the ballot.

As a political matter, however, there are big fault lines between key groups of voters:

▶ Democrats, by 60 percent in favor to 28 percent against, and nonpartisan independents, by 62 to 33 percent, overwhelmingly back Prop. 19, with the balance of voters in each case still undecided. Republicans, however, oppose it even more strongly, 66 to 27 percent, with just 7 percent of GOP voters still undecided.

▶ Voters in California’s coastal counties, who tend to be more liberal, favor legalization, 54 to 38 percent, while inland counties and the Central Valley, areas that represent the political base of state conservatives, oppose the initiative by a nearly identical margin, as 52 percent say they plan to vote no and 37 percent told poll takers they expect to vote yes.

▶ Men back Prop. 19 by a strong majority, 54 to 38 percent, while women say they are against it, by a slight plurality of 46 to 44 percent, with the rest still undecided. The measure also leads among voters of every age group, except those 65 and older (36 to 53 percent).

Historically, California ballot measures that do not lead in early polling, along with those that fall short of majority approval in such preelection surveys, routinely lose, largely because voters who do not focus on initiatives until late in the process overwhelmingly vote no on them. While favorable opinion about Prop. 19 still falls slightly short of a majority, the fact that it has become considerably more popular as voters have learned more about it is an important development for sponsors and foes alike.

Because of California’s reputation as the birthplace of political trends that spread eastward, passage of Prop. 19 would doubtless become a major national story. However, it would not be entirely unexpected, given the latest compilation of long-term trends in the changing attitudes about marijuana among state voters, which the Field Poll began tracking more than 40 years ago:

▶ In 1969, only 13 percent of Californians favored legalization, while a total of 75 percent supported either strict enforcement of existing laws or passage of new and tougher legislation.

▶ By 1983, support for legalization had more than doubled, but even at that, only 30 percent favored the change, compared to 56 percent who still backed tough enforcement of then-current laws or even stricter sanctions against the drug.

▶ Today, 50 percent of voters say they favor legalization of marijuana, while 33 percent want greater law enforcement efforts against it, a huge swing of 79 percent in the direction of liberalized public policies on the issue.

This shift in attitudes now also translates into broad support for California’s medical marijuana law, despite high-profile controversies about how it should be applied and enforced, in Santa Barbara and around the state. Overall, 74 percent of those surveyed favor the state’s policy on medical marijuana — which itself is defined by a 1996 ballot initiative — including large majorities among all partisan political groups and within every demographic category.

The complete Field Poll research on long-range trends about pot is here (tinyurl.com/2cdg24g) and the most recent polling on Proposition 19 is here (tinyurl.com/22of73c).

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