The Washington Post

Pot is hot. Sugar is not.

Get this: Just 8 percent of Americans said marijuana was the biggest health risk of four stimulants and depressants in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Wednesday. Almost twice as many -- 15 percent --  named sugar as the biggest risk. (Tobacco led the way with 49 percent.)

A man smokes a marijuana joint, while Senators debate a bill at the Senate to legalize marijuana and regulate production and distribution in Montevideo, Uruguay. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico, File)

The NBC/WSJ survey parallels two other polls this year finding Americans see marijuana no more risk than alcohol or tobacco, an apparently benign assessment which in stark contrast to the Department of Justice's classification of marijuana as as a schedule 1 substance (read: most dangerous). The "sugar < pot" dynamic comes as cannabis industry lobbyists descend on Capitol Hill this week, including a Thursday briefing with officeholders from California, Oregon and Colorado. In short, pot is hot.

Now, the context of the NBC-WSJ finding -- marijuana's danger compared to other drugs (and candy) -- is critical. It's not that Americans doubt marijuana has any negative effects, but that they no longer stand out from other major causes of health problems.

For instance, somewhere between 43-50 percent of Americans said marijuana is physically or mentally harmful, addictive or serves as a gateway drug in an extensive CNN/ORC poll in January. But those perceptions had dipped drastically since Gallup asked the same questions 42 years earlier, providing strong evidence that the public's fears of marijuana have faded over time.

Nationally, support for marijuana broadly hit a majority in several polls in the past year (though not in a January Post-ABC poll), and demographic trends point to a continued rise in support due to generational turnover. A Pew Research Center survey released last week found almost seven in 10 of the millennials (ages 18 to 33) supporting legalization, compared with just 30 percent among the oldest generation. Even within generations, though, support has increased markedly over the past decade.

Scott Clement is a survey research analyst for The Washington Post. Scott specializes in public opinion about politics, election campaigns and public policy.



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