PHOENIX — A new poll released Wednesday shows more than half of Arizonans are ready to legalize recreational use of marijuana.
The survey of 701 adult heads of households by the Behavior Research Center found 53 percent who said they support legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Another 39 percent were opposed.
The poll comes as two different groups are circulating petitions to say it would no longer be a crime for anyone 21 and older to possess up to an ounce. Both would also set up a network of state-regulated retailers who would also collect a tax, a system similar to alcohol.
But Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who opposes legalization, said he sees the numbers as a good sign.
“Barely 50 percent are still in favor of legalizing marijuana after all the nonsense the legalizers have been engaged in over the last couple of years,” he said. “They haven’t been able to move the needle at all.”
That may be true in the short term.
A similar survey done last year found the margin of support at 51-41, a difference from the current survey well within the 3.8 percentage-point margin of error.
But attitudes clearly are changing: The first statewide poll on this issue done by Behavior Research in 1974 found legalization opposed by a margin of close to 3-1.
If backers of either measure get the signatures to put the issue to voters in 2016, it will take only 50 percent plus one to change the law.
That, however, does not worry Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk. She said she and others can peel off supporters.
“When I present to a group, if I do a before and after poll for example, if there were folks in the audience who think it should be legal when I start, when I explain to them what legalization looks like, and what it means for our kids in particular, the vast majority of folks will change their mind,” she said.
The key seems to come down to how the issue is phrased.
J.P. Holyoak, chairman of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, said Arizonans believe there is no reason to treat the two items differently from one another.
“They do not think adults should be punished just for consuming a substance that is objectively less harmful than alcohol,” he said in a prepared response to the poll.
Polk said her job is to convince voters the measure is more far-reaching.
“I encounter people who think that legal marijuana means my next-door neighbor can grow his own plant and he can smoke on his back porch, and he’s not bothering anybody,” she said.
But Polk said that’s only a small piece of what either measure would do.
“These initiatives are about legalizing a market that is for-profit, that gets to manufacture these highly potent forms of this drug,” she said.
“They get to aggressively advertise and seek to draw new consumers,” Polk continued. “The result is more kids use (marijuana).”
Montgomery conceded that supporters are likely to have more money than foes, even with Polk having set up a committee to take donations to oppose the measure.
But he said it may not take much to kill the initiative. He pointed out that the 2010 measure to allow doctors to recommend marijuana barely squeaked through even though proponents spent nearly $800,000 against less than $20,000 available to opponents.
The strongest support for legalizing marijuana for recreational use came from the state’s 13 rural counties, where 58 percent are in favor. In Maricopa County the figure was 53-38.
One curiosity was that the weakest level of support came from Pima County, where 47 percent like the idea with 43 percent opposed. Yet Pima County was one of only two counties — the other was Coconino — where the majority supported the 2010 measure; it failed in the other 13 counties.