It may not be what you think.
In the westernmost territory of the continental United States, where smoking marijuana is almost as common as drinking martinis and margaritas, a new poll finds that for the first time ever a clear majority has finally embraced the movement to tax and regulate the substance.
The survey (PDF), conducted by The Field Research Corporation, places 55 percent of Californians in favor of regulating marijuana, versus just 31 percent opposed. The last time the poll was taken, in 2010, 50 percent said they wanted marijuana to be legalized, while 46 percent still favored the current prohibition or even tougher laws.
That movement forward is consistent with the overall trend in the state since medical marijuana was first legalized there in 1996. The first time a Field Poll was taken regarding marijuana legalization in California, in 1969, a full 75 percent favored police-enforced prohibition while just 13 percent favored regulation.
Compare that to 2010, when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered that marijuana possession under one ounce be treated as an infraction, instead of a misdemeanor, punishable by a small fine instead of a trip to jail. And while the state's voters passed on a legalization initiative that same year, The New York Times reports that critics' warnings against decriminalization have largely proved to be "unfounded."
The latest Field Poll results could not come at a better time for legalization advocates, either: a group called California Cannabis Hemp Initiative 2014 has been authorized to begin collecting signatures to take another run at legalization next November. The organizers have until February to gather 500,000 valid signatures from California voters if the initiative is to make the ballot.
If they succeed, California will become the first state to legalize industrial hemp production, opening up yet another new market to farmers, and cannabis consumption for consenting adults. It would also establish limits for intoxicated driving, regulate the sale of marijuana similarly to alcohol and ban employer drug testing for THC, marijuana's active ingredient.
The poll results also come on the same day that Uruguay became the first nation in the world to legalize marijuana, underscoring how increasingly unsteady support for global prohibition really is. Similar movements are gaining significant ground in Mexico, Ecuador, Venezuela, Switzerland and even the European Union.
Mexico in particular is a key bellwether of changing attitudes on marijuana, according to former President Vicente Fox, who said recently that the country will have to follow suit if California takes the first step toward legalization. "Once California gets into this, Mexico is going to be obligated to speed up its decision process," he said in July, predicting Mexico's prohibition wouldn't last another five years.
Of course, what's true for California is often true for the rest of America, and the changing opinions on marijuana are no different. The polling firm Gallup found in October that 58 percent of Americans think the drug should be taxed and regulated similarly to alcohol, whereas just 39 percent prefer strict enforcement of prohibition. Amazingly, Gallup's figures represent a 10 percent shift in favor of legalization since just 2012, and a 46 percent shift since 1969.
Photo: Flickr user Cannabis Culture, creative commons licensed.