(Brennan Linsley, Associated Press file)

Pew poll: 53% of Americans want legal pot; Most want feds to butt out

Marijuana legalizers are winning the battle for hearts and minds.

That’s one takeaway from a new Pew Research Center survey on public attitudes toward marijuana legalization. The survey found that 53 percent of Americans say the use of marijuana should be legal, consistent with what other major studies have shown.

But in an interesting follow-up, Pew researchers asked whether people had always held these attitudes toward legalization, or whether there was a time they had felt differently. The results are telling: roughly 40 percent of legalization supporters said they used to feel differently. By contrast, only 16 percent of opponents said the same.

The question shows that the marijuana legalization movement has been successful at changing people’s minds on the legalization question. “The more that people learn about marijuana and look at the benefits of legalization, the more likely they are to support reform,” said Tom Angell, Chairman of Marijuana Majority, a pro-legalization group. By contrast, opponents of legalization so far haven’t changed many minds the other way — just 7 percent of the overall population says they oppose legalization now, but used to support it.

Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a group that opposes legalization, says that “people have changed their minds because of the multimillion dollar effort to normalize a drug that stunts normal brain development, contributes to mental illness, and is directly related to car crashes… No one should count anti-legalization groups out. If anything, these numbers make us redouble our efforts.”

Pew also posed an open-ended question asking supporters and opponents of legalization to state why they felt that way. “The most frequently cited reasons for supporting the legalization of marijuana are its medicinal benefits (41%) and the belief that marijuana is no worse than other drugs (36%)-with many explicitly mentioning that they think it is no more dangerous than alcohol or cigarettes,” the study’s authors wrote.

By contrast, opponents generally said that marijuana hurts society or is bad for individuals, or that the drug is dangerous and addictive. Rather inexplicably, 19 percent of opponents said marijuana should be illegal because it is illegal — make of that what you will.

Other major findings from the Pew study:

Republicans are outliers on legalization

Breaking the numbers down by political party, Pew found very close agreement on legalization between Democrats and Independents: 59 percent of the former and 58 percent of the latter say pot should be legal, compared to only 39 percent of Republicans.

These numbers suggest that supporting legalization would be a relatively risk-free proposition for Hillary Clinton — it’s popular with the Democratic base, and it’s just as popular with the Independents who will be crucial in the general election.

Everyone wants the feds to butt out

Americans of all political stripes say the federal government should not interfere with state-level legalization efforts: 58 percent of Democrats, 54 percent of Republicans, and 64 percent of Independents agree on this. Even 38 percent of people who oppose legalization still say that the federal government should not enforce federal pot laws in states that have legalized.

The Obama administration has generally followed this hands-off approach and given states the space to carry out their legalization experiments. But just yesterday, New Jersey Governor and potential 2016 candidate Chris Christie said that he would discontinue this practice and “crack down and not permit” legalization at the state level if he become president.

What you do in your own home is your own business

Americans overwhelmingly say that the thought of people using weed in the privacy of their own homes does not bother them: 82 percent say it wouldn’t be a problem. And while some Colorado property owners are suing over proposed pot dispensaries in their neighborhoods, a surprising 57 percent of all Americans say they’d have no problem if a marijuana business opened up next door.

People draw the line at smoking in public, though: 62 percent say this would bother them. Given that 56 percent of Americans support a total ban on cigarette smoking in public, this isn’t a huge surprise. But there’s a cautionary message in here for legalization supporters who stage “smoke-ins” to show their support or disapproval of new laws — highly visible events like these may simply alienate people on the fence about legalization.