Backing for law on medical pot climbs in poll

January 29, 2004

Alexa Bluth, Sacramento Bee

Californians' views about the use of medical marijuana have relaxed dramatically since voters agreed to legalize the drug for ill patients in this state eight years ago, a new statewide survey found.

Now three in four voters, cutting across political, religious and generational spectrums, believe that 1996's largely stalled medical marijuana proposition should be enforced, according to a Field Poll released today.

That is a far greater percentage than cast ballots in favor of Proposition 215, which is supposed to exempt from criminal charges patients or caregivers with a doctor's prescription to possess or cultivate marijuana. The law passed with 56 percent approval.

The law has largely stalled because federal authorities refuse to recognize it in California and continue to enforce federal marijuana laws even in medical cases.

'A majority of (voters) are supportive of implementation of the law,' said survey director Mark DiCamillo. 'There is no subgroup -- be it conservative, be it regular churchgoer, be it Republican -- that is opposed.'

Indeed, six in 10 Republicans surveyed and more than half of those who said they considered themselves conservative favor the law's implementation.

'The will of the people comes first and foremost, period,' said survey respondent Gerrold Webber, a 56-year-old Sacramento letter carrier, who is a Republican. 'If the people vote for it, it should be implemented.'

The latest poll also found some pronounced changes in Californians' attitude about the drug, although voters by a 5-3 ratio oppose legalizing marijuana to sell in a similar fashion as alcohol or tobacco, which would generate tax revenues for the state.

Half of the voting public said they believe marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol, compared to just 16 percent who felt that way in a 1969 Field Poll.

'It isn't something where the public is fearing the consequences of widespread abuse,' said DiCamillo.

However, DiCamillo said, attitudes about the dangers of marijuana are related to whether voters said they had ever smoked it. Of those who said they have -- about half of those surveyed -- almost two-thirds said the drug is no more dangerous than alcohol. A little more than a third of those who said they had never used the drug agreed.

Webber said he has never smoked it, but said he 'always felt that marijuana was probably the lesser of evils out there.'

'There might be a little more risk with marijuana than alcohol but compared to the benefits of aiding sick people, I think it's a tradeoff,' Webber said. 'If (the terminally ill) can get some kind of benefit from it then I think, yeah, it should be allowed.'

Hazen Simkins, 87, a retired Sacramento resident who considers his political views 'middle-of-the-road,' said he disapproves of marijuana use unless it occurs 'under normal medical channels under prescription directions.' He said he supports its use particularly among the terminally ill.

'I suppose it's no different than any other sedative or drug that they use in medicine,' he said.

The Field Poll also found that the belief that marijuana leads a person to use more dangerous drugs has dipped over time. In 1969, eight in 10 Californians felt that the drug led to more dangerous habits, compared to about half today.

The findings are based on a telephone survey of 500 registered voters conducted from Jan. 5 to 13. The poll has a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.

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