Elon Poll finds support for legalizing marijuana in N.C. for medical, recreational uses

Among the findings from the survey conducted Jan. 29-31 is that nearly two-thirds of N.C. residents support reducing penalties for marijuana possession and believe it would help the state’s economy.


The Elon University Poll has found growing support among North Carolina residents for legalizing marijuana for recreational use and continued strong support for medical marijuana legalization in its more recent survey. Nearly two-thirds of the state’s adults say they do not believe marijuana use is morally wrong and support reducing penalties for marijuana possession, saying that legalization would boost the state’s economy.

Among N.C. adult residents, opposition to legalizing marijuana for recreational use fell sharply since the Elon Poll last conducted a survey on the topic in April 2017. This survey found that 34 percent of respondents were opposed to recreational marijuana legalization, down from 50.5 percent in 2017. Support for legalization grew as well, with 54 percent now in support of making recreational use of marijuana legal compared to 45 percent in 2017.

Support for legalizing marijuana for medical use in the state has remained relatively consistent since the 2017 survey. This survey found that 73 percent support legalizing medical marijuana in the state compared to 80 percent, a decline of seven percentage points. However, opposition levels have remained flat, with 18 percent now saying they are opposed to legalizing medical marijuana compared to 17 percent in 2017.

“Opposition to recreational marijuana legalization fell substantially over the last three years,” said Jason Husser, director of the Elon Poll and associate professor of political science. “I suspect this is due in large part to the wave of states that have passed legalization measures. Medical marijuana legalization remains broadly supported in every demographic group we examined.”

The survey also found that a solid majority supports reducing penalties for marijuana possession, such as changing it to a civil offense rather than a criminal office. The Elon Poll found that 67 percent of N.C. residents support such a move, while 20 percent say they are opposed and 13 percent say they don’t know.

The Elon Poll also asked about potential impacts if marijuana were to be legalized in North Carolina. The poll found that 64 percent of residents believe marijuana legalization would help the state’s economy, while 16 percent say it would hurt the economy and 21 percent say they don’t know what impact it would have. Forty-five percent of residents say crime would decrease if marijuana was legalized while 24 percent say it would increase and 31 percent say they don’t know what the impact would be. Residents are unsure about how marijuana legalization would impact motor vehicle accidents, with 48 percent saying they don’t know, 36 percent saying accidents would increase and 17 percent saying accidents would decrease.

Looking more broadly at views of marijuana, the Elon Poll found that 63 percent of residents do not believe it is morally wrong to use marijuana while 22 percent think it is and 15 percent say they don’t know. Asked if marijuana was a “gateway drug” that leads to the use of “hard drugs” like heroin and cocaine, 53 percent said that it was not while 27 percent said it was a gateway drug and 20 percent said they don’t know.

This final release of three from a survey of 1,455 adult residents of North Carolina that was conducted Jan. 29-31 using an online opt-in sample marketplace. The survey has a credibility interval of +/- 2.7 percentage points. The credibility interval is an accuracy measure for opt-in online surveys. A fuller explanation of the credibility interval and the survey methodology are available in the full report.

The survey was conducted by the Elon Poll in partnership with The Charlotte Observer, The Durham Herald-Sun and The Raleigh News & Observer.


Breaking down the survey results by demographic groups shows variations in opinions about whether recreational marijuana use should be legalized, age and political affiliation producing the largest gaps in opinion.

Younger residents are more likely to support and less likely to oppose recreational marijuana legalization. 62 percent of those 18 to 24 percent and 65 percent of those 25 to 44 percent support legalization, while 52 percent of those 45 to 64 support legalization and just 32 percent of those 65 or older support legalization. On the flip side, more than half — 56 percent — of those 65 or older oppose legalization compared to 38 percent of those 45 to 64, 22 percent of those 25 to 44 and 23 percent of those 18 to 24.

“We found a major generational gap for recreational marijuana legalization with those under 44 being about twice as likely as those 65 or older to support legalization,” Husser said. “Notably, these large generational differences do not extend to support for medical marijuana and lowering criminal penalties. Most Republicans also supported reducing penalties and legalizing medical marijuana.”

Democrats are more likely to support the legalization of recreational marijuana than Republicans, but Republicans are more evenly divided on the issue between support and opposition. Fifty-nine percent of Democrats support the legalization of recreational marijuana use while 29 percent oppose it. That is similar to those who belong to neither party, with 57 percent supporting legalization and 27 percent opposing.

However, while 49 percent of Republicans oppose the legalization of recreational marijuana, 43 percent of members of the political party support it. Eight percent of Republicans say they don’t know when asked about the issue, compared to 12 percent of Democrats and 16 percent of those who belong to neither party.

There were similar demographic differences in opinion on the issue of legalizing marijuana for medical use, but for all factors — education, age, political affiliation, race and gender — at least 60 percent supported legalization. Groups with the highest levels of support were those 25 to 44 (79 percent) and residents who belong to neither political party (79 percent). Opposition was highest among Those 65 years old or older (28 percent) and Republicans (27 percent).

Reduced penalties

The N.C. Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice, a group formed by N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper and headed by Attorney General Jeff Stein, recommended in November that the state decriminalize the possession of up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana. The task force cited data showing that North Carolinians of color are disproportionately arrested for marijuana possession, and recommended that possession still be a civil offense.

Such a change in North Carolina’s criminal law has significant support among its residents, with the Elon Poll finding that 67 percent would favor such a move, with 20 percent opposed to the change and 13 percent saying they don’t know.

Decriminalizing marijuana possession received the most support from residents who have higher levels of educational attainment, Democrats, White residents and men. 72 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree or more support the change compared to 65 percent of those with less than a bachelor’s degree. Seventy-one percent of Democrats would like to see the laws changed compared to 60 percent of Republicans and 69 percent of those who belong to neither party.

Breaking down the results by race, the change generated the most support from Whites (70 percent), followed by Blacks (65) and those of other races (56 percent). Men were slightly more likely to support a change in the law (69 percent) than women (65 percent).

Interestingly, support for changing the laws was lowest among the youngest residents and the oldest. Among those 18 to 24 years old, 62 percent said the laws should be changed and among those 65 or older, 63 percent supported the change. That compares to 68 percent of those 45 to 64 and 70 percent of those 25 to 44.