Washington (CNN) – Around half the public says that marijuana use should be legal, according to recent national polling.
Forty-eight percent of those questioned in a CBS News survey in early May said that the use of marijuana should be legal, with 47% disagreeing. The poll suggested partisan, gender and generational divides, with a majority of men, younger Americans, Democrats and independents saying recreational pot should be legal. Women, those 45 and older, as well as Republicans, disagree.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted in early January also indicated that Americans were divided on the issue.
A Pew Research Center survey conducted in February and a CNN/ORC International poll conducted in early January both indicated a slight majority supported legalizing marijuana use. Fifty-four percent of those questioned in the Pew poll, and 55% of those sampled in the CNN poll supported legalizing marijuana.
According to the CNN poll and numbers from General Social Survey polling, support for legalizing marijuana has steadily soared over the past quarter century – from 16% in 1987 to 26% in 1996, 34% in 2002, and 43% two years ago.
Attitudes have dramatically changed
Why has support for legalizing marijuana tripled since the 1970s and 1980s?
"Attitudes toward the effects of marijuana and whether it is morally wrong to smoke pot have changed dramatically over time," said CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. "That also means that marijuana use is just not all that important to Americans any longer."
In 1972, about a year after President Richard Nixon declared drugs "public enemy Number One," 65% said the use of marijuana was a very serious problem for the United States. Now that is down to 19%, according to the CNN survey.
The number who said marijuana is a gateway drug (47%), is down 23 points since 1972. The number who said marijuana is addictive (50%), is down 10 points. And the number who said marijuana is physically harmful (43%) is down 23 points.
"Clearly there are some reservations about marijuana, but not the widespread fear that existed during the original War on Drugs in the 1970s," added Holland.
The biggest change indicated by the poll reflected the number of people who said smoking pot is morally wrong. In 1987, 70% said it was, making it a sin in the minds of more Americans than abortion or pornography.
Now, that number has been halved – just 35% today said smoking marijuana is morally wrong.
Widespread agreement that it is not morally wrong may be one of the bigger drivers of the pro-legalization movement.
CNN Political Editor Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.