Far more Hawaii voters support establishing medical marijuana dispensaries than just over a year ago, according to a new Civil Beat poll.

But voters still oppose legalization of marijuana for recreational use by about the same margin as last year.

Asked if they would support state legislation to “create production centers and dispensaries for medical marijuana in each county,” 62 percent of respondents in the latest poll said “yes,” 26 percent said “no,” and 12 percent were undecided.

But last year, only 45 percent of respondents supported the establishment of dispensaries, while 47 percent percent opposed it and 9 percent were undecided, according to a February 2014 Civil Beat poll.

Unlike the new poll, last year’s question about medical marijuana noted it was “still an illegal drug under federal law.”

But Civil Beat’s pollster said the dramatic shift has little do with the wording of the questions and much to do with voters reaching a “tipping point” on the question of medical marijuana dispensaries.

“Middle-age and older voters are moving to the consensus that medical marijuana is appropriate in controlled doses,” said Matthew Fitch, executive director of the Merriman River Group.

‘Going to Be a Non-Issue Soon’

The latest poll of 780 registered voters was conducted April 7-9 and has a margin of error of 3.5 percent.

The poll results come just as the Legislature appears on the verge of passing a bill to establish dispensaries — 15 years after Hawaii became one of the first states to legalize medical marijuana but failed to establish a practical means of obtaining it other than patients growing their own.

Voters seem to be saying that “if you’re going to legalize something you might as well have a way to get it,” Fitch said. “It’s moving toward acceptance. It’s going to be a non-issue soon.”

Support for establishing dispensaries crosses all age groups and income levels, and most ethnicities.

Competing Senate and House bills have been approved, and the differences will be sorted out in conference committee beginning this week. House Bill 321 would allow up to one dispensary license to be granted in each county, and each license would cover up to one cultivation site and two dispensary locations. Senate Bill 682 would develop a dispensary system with more locations and lower dispensary fees than what’s proposed in the House bill.

Support for establishing dispensaries crosses all age groups and income levels, and most ethnicities, with only a majority of Filipinos opposing them, according to the new poll.

A majority of Republicans remains opposed, however, with 35 percent support and 56 percent opposition. Even that margin has shrunk: Among Republicans in last year’s poll, 36 percent were in support and 61 percent were in opposition.

Among Democrats, dispensaries are favored by 72 percent to 16 percent this year and were favored by 53 percent to 38 percent last year. Among independents, dispensaries were favored 73 percent to 23 percent this year after trailing last year with 38 percent approval and 55 percent opposition.

The bottom line seems to be that even most non-marijuana users see the value of establishing “a safer environment to obtain it” for medicinal purposes, Fitch said.

Different Story for Legalization

Not so for recreational use, however, with 35 percent of total respondents to the latest poll favoring legalization and 59 percent opposing it, with 12 percent unsure. That’s nearly the same as last year, when an identical question found 33 percent support, 59 percent opposition and 6 percent unsure.

Very few demographic categories found majority support for legalization, which was generally favored by younger, more liberal voters.

The numbers bear out the notion that any movement toward outright legalization will be “more gradual” than the move toward establishing medical marijuana dispensaries, Fitch said.

Why does such a heavily Democratic state as Hawaii differ from states such as Washington, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska, where voters have legalized recreational use?

“Hawaii is different in a few ways,” Fitch said. “While it’s a Democratic state and a live and let live state, it’s still a state that fairly religious.”

And then there’s the gender and island gaps.

Among men, 43 percent support legalization and 52 percent oppose it. Among women, 28 percent support it and 65 percent oppose it. Even among older respondents, men are more sympathetic to legalization.

Voters on the neighbor islands are also much more open to the idea, with 40 percent suport and 53 percent opposition, compared to Oahu’s 33 percent support and 62 percent opposition.

That tends to mirror the ethnic breakdowns of the island populations, since Caucasians are more likely to support legalization than other ethnic groups.

The neighbor islands are “whiter and younger,” Fitch said, noting that the Big Island in particular has “a lot of liberal transplants.”

Stronger support for legalization has been found among organizations advocating for the change, and one reason might be their tendency to combine the medical and recreational issues into a single question, Fitch said.

“Splitting the questions up is more accurate,” he said.

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