By a margin of 20 percent, a majority of Michigan voters supports legalization of small amounts of marijuana for adult recreational use, as two competing groups race to put the issue on the November 2016 ballot.
Support for legalization topped 56 percent in a statewide poll conducted June 9-11 by the Glengariff Group Inc. and released exclusively to The Detroit News and WDIV-TV.
Among 600 likely 2016 general election voters, opposition to ending Michigan's decades-old cannabis prohibition was just under 36 percent.
"The issue is in a position to win," said pollster Richard Czuba, president of the Chicago-based Glengariff Group. "This has a chance, but it's not an easy campaign."
Two groups are beginning to collect signatures this month to put the issue before voters next year in a bid to have Michigan join Colorado and three other states in defying federal laws against cultivating, selling and consuming marijuana.
"That's at 56 percent, and we haven't begun to educate people about what this can do as a new (tax) revenue stream and industry in Michigan," said Matt Marsden, spokesman for the Michigan Cannabis Coalition, one of the groups seeking marijuana legalization. "I think we can move that number up from 56."
The polling data show deep generational divisions over recreational pot use, seven years after Michigan voters decriminalized marijuana for medicinal purposes. More than 3 million voters, or about 63 percent, approved medical marijuana in a 2008 statewide vote.
Among voters under age 30, 74 percent support legalizing marijuana, according to the poll. But their grandparents and parents may not approve, Czuba said. More than 51 percent of voters over age 65 oppose marijuana legalization.
While nearly 65 percent of men favor legalization, support among women narrows to 48 percent in favor and 43 percent opposed. The poll had an error margin of plus or minus four percentage points.
"The most fascinating dynamic we saw in these numbers is a gender split," Czuba said. "Any campaign is going to have to focus on convincing women. Men are there."
Marsden acknowledged women voters need more convincing about the benefits of legalized pot.
"That is a demographic that we will certainly be targeting with a very specific message about marijuana … that this is going to be properly regulated for people 21 age or older just like alcohol," Marsden said.
University of Michigan researcher Lloyd Johnston, who has run a nationwide study on youth drug use for 40 years, said the rush to legalize marijuana lacks debate on how it will be more accessible to teenagers.
"I don't think that side of the story is getting the coverage that it should," Johnston said.
Johnston's "Monitoring the Future" study has found legalized medical marijuana has created a new source for teens to obtain the drug.
"We know from our studies that some kids say one of their sources are people who have a medical marijuana card," Johnston said. "It's going to be more available."
And the wider the availability, the greater chance for marijuana to be abused, cause addiction and hinder brain development in teens, opponents argue.
Along party lines, marijuana legalization is supported by Democrats, independents and a majority of voters who identify as leaning toward the Republican Party, according to the Glengariff poll. Voters who said they are "strong" Republicans remain opposed to marijuana legalization, 53 percent to 44 percent.
Jeffrey Hank, executive director of the Michigan Comprehensive Cannabis Law Reform Committee, said he expects voter support for his group's initiative to increase once they learn that a large portion of his group's proposed marijuana tax would go toward funding road repairs.
The group's proposed law calls for a maximum 10 percent excise tax on marijuana, on top of the state's 6 percent sales tax. The money would be divided three ways: 40 percent for roads, 40 percent for education and 20 percent for municipalities with licensed marijuana shops.
"Everybody seems to think that's a great idea," Hank said of taxing pot sales for road funding.
But Hank acknowledged it likely won't come close to solving the state's $1.2 billion annual shortfall in road funding.
"It doesn't solve the shortcoming by any means, but it's at least something to help it," he said.
The Michigan Cannabis Coalition's proposal does not specify a tax rate for recreational marijuana. The rate would be set by the Legislature.
Around Michigan, at least 18 communities have approved local measures to legalize or decriminalize the recreational use of marijuana. The moves have occurred mostly in Democratic-dominated or leaning communities such as Ann Arbor, Detroit, Kalamazoo and Ferndale.
In November, Huntington Woods and Berkley residents voted to decriminalize the recreational use of pot, while Pleasant Ridge voters decided to make some marijuana-related crimes a low priority for police.