Hey, pass the news around, dude. Six in 10 New Jerseyans feel penalties for marijuana use should be relaxed, just over half think pot possession should not be penalized at all, and one-third would completely legalize its sale and use, according to a Rutgers-Eagleton Poll released Wednesday.
In the almost 40 years since Rutgers-Eagleton first asked about penalties for marijuana use, New Jerseyans have become more relaxed about the issue. In May 1972, four in 10 New Jerseyans said penalties for marijuana use should be reduced.
Like many other issues, marijuana has become more partisan over the years: in 1972, Democrats and Republicans were only four points apart, but the latest poll finds the gap has grown to 20 points, with 64 percent of Democrats, but only 44 percent of Republicans supporting reduced penalties for its use. At the same time, 86 percent support the availability of medical marijuana by prescription, including 92 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of Republicans.
“When we first asked these questions in the early 1970s, Garden Staters were much less supportive, although attitudes became more liberalized throughout that decade,” Prof. David Redlawsk, the poll’s director, said. “The change since then is significant, but not unexpected. What is new is the wide support for medical marijuana, even among those who otherwise oppose reducing or eliminating penalties for its recreational use.”
While medical marijuana was not on the agenda in the 1970s, 86 percent of current respondents favor legalization for medical purposes. Support is strong across almost all groups of voters, though it is stronger among the most highly educated (92 percent) compared to those with a high school education or less (80 percent). Age does not seem to play much of a role – those over 65 are just about as likely to support medical marijuana as those under 45.
Voters with household incomes under $50,000 are slightly less supportive (84 percent) than higher earners (90 percent). Catholics (87 percent) are slightly stronger supporters than Protestants (82 percent) while virtually all Jewish respondents are positive. Race seems to play some role. Whites are more supportive of medical marijuana than blacks, 86 percent to 78 percent.
“The slowness with which the Christie administration appears to be implementing the medical marijuana law passed at the end of the Corzine administration seems to fly in the face of public opinion,” Redlawsk said. “While recent reports say some of the problem is related to the difficulties of opening the dispensaries called for under the law, public support for the concept is very strong.”
In 1972, only 40 percent of New Jerseyans believed that penalties for marijuana use should be reduced. By decade’s end, that had climbed to 51 percent. Today, 58 percent favor more lenient laws.
While support has climbed slowly, political partisans have grown apart on the issue of reduced penalties. By a 20-point margin, Democrats are more in favor of reducing penalties than Republicans. Fifty-eight percent of independent voters agree. In the 1972 poll, independents were the strongest supporters of reducing marijuana penalties at 53 percent. Democrats and Republicans were less likely to agree that penalties for marijuana use should be reduced and were only four points apart (42 percent and 38 percent, respectively).
Those in their 20s in 1972 were the strongest supporters (66 percent). That same group – now in their 60s – is still supportive, but only by a 50 percent to 40 percent margin. Voters in their 50s are today’s strongest supporters (70 percent) for reducing penalties for marijuana use.
“As they have aged, the young voters of the 70s have become somewhat less supportive of reduced penalties,” Redlawsk said. “Even so, while senior citizens are often more conservative on social issues, a majority continues to support greater leniency in marijuana use penalties.”
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