In 1972 there was a distinct gender gap on this question, with women significant less likely to support reduced penalties for use. Over the past 40 years, support among men is little changed at 56 percent, but support among women has grown dramatically from 37 percent in 1972 to 54 percent today.
More than half of respondents agree that penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana should be eliminated; about one-third agreed 40 years ago. As with the question about use, the gap between Republicans and Democrats has grown. In 1972, 38 percent of Democrats and 29 percent of Republicans supported eliminating penalties for possession. Today 60 percent of Democrats are in favor, as well as 42 percent of Republicans. Independents have also become more lenient; 56 percent now say penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana should be eliminated. Previously, 45 percent felt the same.
Most age groups support eliminating possession penalties today, except for those in their 40s, who favor penalties by a 50 percent to 44 percent margin. This is in spite of the fact that the same group does support reducing penalties for use, by a 52 percent to 39 percent margin.
“Those in their 40s came of age primarily during the Reagan-Bush years, which was an era of strong negative messages about drugs,” Redlawsk said. “The results seem to be reflected here, with this group significantly less supportive of reduced penalties for use and possession than most others.”
In the early 1970s, education seemed to be a significant indicator of support for decriminalizing some marijuana offenses, with support increasing with the level of education. Today there is little difference among voters with different levels of education.
While generally supporting reduced penalties for possession and use of small amounts of marijuana, N.J. voters remain adamantly opposed to complete legalization. Only 35 percent would support legalizing the sale and the use of marijuana, though this is substantially higher than the 21 percent reported in 1972.
Voters of all political leanings show increased support since 1972, with Democrats nearly doubling support to 40 percent (up 19 points), followed by independents at 37 percent (up from 30 percent) and Republicans at 24 percent, who also nearly double their 14 percent support 40 years ago.
The historical data shows that in the early 1970s, younger people were more likely to favor the complete legalization of marijuana than older people. The same holds today, as those over 60 are more than 10 points less likely to support legalization than other age groups.
“Issues surrounding marijuana remain similar to where they were 30 or 40 years ago, when we last asked, but voters have become a bit more liberal over the years,” Redlawsk said. “Even so, people continue to stop short at complete legalization, except for medical use. There simply does not seem to be any momentum for going much further than that.”
Pollsters surveyed 753 registered N.J. voters between Nov. 9 and 12. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percent The 1972 results are from a poll of 1218 registered voters.
—TOM HESTER SR., NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM