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For the first time, a majority of Republicans support marijuana legalization

For the first time in nearly 50 years of Gallup polling on the question, a majority of American Republicans say they support marijuana legalization.

Fifty-one percent of Republicans surveyed by Gallup this month said they support legalization, up sharply from 42 percent a year ago. Even larger majorities of independents (67 percent) and Democrats (72 percent) are in favor of legal marijuana.

Overall, 64 percent of Americans now support legalization, the highest percentage ever in Gallup polling.

“The trajectory of Americans' views on marijuana is similar to that of their views on same-sex marriage over the past couple of decades,” Gallup said in its analysis of the data. “On both issues, about a quarter supported legalization in the late 1990s, and today 64% favor each.”

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Nationwide support for legalization first hit 50 percent in 2011, just ahead of historic votes in Colorado and Washington state to legalize recreational use of the drug in 2012. Since then, voters in six more states and the District of Columbia have approved recreational marijuana laws.

More than 20 percent of the U.S. population now lives in a state where marijuana use is fully legal, and even strong opponents of legalization concede that norms around marijuana use are shifting.

“The national discussion surrounding marijuana enforcement efforts continues to evolve,” the federal Drug Enforcement Administration wrote in its just-released 2017 National Drug Threat Assessment. Despite the drug's widespread availability even in states where it hasn't been legalized, marijuana remains at the bottom of law enforcement agencies' drug priorities.

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Meanwhile, many of opponents' fears about marijuana legalization don't appear to be panning out. States that have legalized pot are also beginning to reap some of the benefits of the policy change, including job growthtax revenue and even some evidence of slowing in the opiate epidemic.

To be sure, legalization has also brought some challenges. The popularity of potent edible products proved to be a surprise, prompting lawmakers to scramble to regulate them. Drug-impaired driving will continue to be a concern, as will medical issues among people who overdo it.

The sharp shift in Republican voters' views on pot is the most significant finding in the Gallup poll, coming during a time of increased federal skepticism of marijuana legalization efforts. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has asked lawmakers to undo federal protections for medical marijuana, repeatedly calling it a “dangerous drug.”

But greater support for legalization could complicate any administration efforts to crack down on pot. "Attorney General Jeff Sessions could find himself out of step with his own party if the current trends continue,” Gallup wrote.