Marijuana Legalization Increasingly Popular in Colorado, But Smoking Pot Isn’t

A solid majority favors relaxed pot rules, poll finds.

Meg Sanders inspects drying marijuana at her grow house on Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, in Denver.

Meg Sanders inspects drying marijuana at her grow house Thursday in Denver. City residents who do not own marijuana businesses are allowed to grow six plants each or 12 per household.

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A poll of Colorado voters conducted a month after the opening of the nation’s first non-medical marijuana stores finds solid support for the state's unfolding legalization experiment.

Fifty-eight percent of residents favor voter-approved legalization policies and 39 percent are opposed, according the poll, released Monday by Quinnipiac University. That’s an increase from 54 percent support recorded by Quinnipiac six months ago and higher than the 55 percent support from voters who cast ballots on Amendment 64, which legalized the drug, in November 2012.

The poll found self-reported use of marijuana hasn’t increased since August, remaining unchanged with 51 percent who say they have and 47 percent who say they haven’t used pot.

Just 10 percent of respondents said they used marijuana in the month after the grand opening of marijuana stores. That’s significantly lower than the rate of illicit marijuana use by American high school seniors -  22.7 percent of whom reported past month use of pot to the National Institute on Drug Abuse in 2013.

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Retired California Superior Court Judge James Gray, a legalization advocate and member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, tells U.S. News he’s slightly surprised there wasn’t a short-lived bump in reported usage after the opening of stores.

One reason use didn’t increase, Gray speculates, is that marijuana is generally “fully available” to anyone who wishes to use it in the U.S., regardless of its legality. He also says Portugal’s experience with drug decriminalization a decade ago shows removing criminal penalties may actually decrease substance use by removing fear of treatment among drug abusers.

Possession of 1 ounce of marijuana by adults 21 and older, and growing up to six plants per person became legal in Colorado on Dec. 10, 2012. After ironing out specific tax and regulatory framework, recreational pot stores opened Jan. 1, 2014.

“A strong majority of Colorado voters demanded an end to marijuana prohibition, and that's what is just now taking place,” says Mason Tvert, co-director of the Amendment 64 campaign and spokesman of the national Marijuana Policy Project. “We are only about one month into implementing the system, and it is going quite smoothly.”

[CHARTS: ACLU Breaks Down Demographics of Pot Busts]

Tvert says “it won't be long before the novelty wears off in Colorado and marijuana becomes just another legal product viewed similarly as we view alcohol, especially as more states follow our lead over the next couple years.”

In a possible silver lining for legalization opponents, 51 percent of respondents told Quinnipiac legalization has been bad for the state’s national image.

But Tvert and Gray say that’s likely to change.

Tvert notes that 57 percent of 18- to 29-year-old adults said legalization was good for Colorado’s image - possibly indicating a boon for tourism and for state companies seeking to attract young professionals, he says.

“Nobody looks back at alcohol prohibition and has a negative view of the first states to ratify the 21st Amendment,” Tvert says.

[WATCH: McCain Says 'Maybe We Should Legalize' Marijuana]

“[Colorado] will be quickly followed by other states all around the country,” Gray predicts. “By the end of the year 2016, by and large marijuana prohibition will be a thing of the past. This is going to work.”

Washington state will allow licensed marijuana stores to open later this year. Alaska residents will vote Aug. 19 on whether to follow suit. Arizona, California, Oregon and Washington, D.C., voters may decide on legalization in November - with the Oregon effort considered the most likely to prevail.

Pot legalization faces a more difficult climb legislatively. The New Hampshire House of Representatives became the first state legislative chamber to approve legalization Jan. 15, but that measure faces roadblocks from the state senate and governor.

In Colorado local communities are able to block the opening of recreational marijuana stores. The local government of Colorado Springs - the state’s second largest city and home of Focus on the Family and the U.S. Air Force Academy - opted to do so. 

Anti-legalization activists associated with the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana said during a Dec. 31 conference call with reporters that rallying local action to block marijuana stores is a major short-term objective.

“Legalization might sound like a good thing in theory, but in reality it means pot shops in your backyard, a brand-new industry targeting kids with candies that are laced with marijuana, and increased costs,” SAM co-founder Kevin Sabet says. “So it's not very surprising that the majority of Coloradans are saying that it damages the [state’s] reputation.”

Quinnipiac surveyed 1,139 registered voters between Jan. 29 and Feb. 2. The poll's calculated margin of error was +/- 2.9 percentage points.

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Updated on Feb. 11, 2014: Reaction to the Quinnipiac poll from anti-legalization activist Kevin Sabet was added to this article.