By Jeremy B. White

In a state that pioneered rethinking marijuana laws, a majority of voters have legalization in mind.

A new Field Poll tracks the increasingly green-friendly attitude of Californians, a decades-long trend that has seen Golden State residents swing from seeking tougher enforcement to favoring the end of pot prohibition. Eight percent of voters backed allowing anyone to purchase cannabis and 47 percent said it should be available with the types of controls, like age verification, that govern alcohol sales.

Those two groups combined account for 55 percent of voters surveyed, marking a breakthrough for marijuana advocates: It is the first time a Field Poll has discovered clear majority support for legalization. A combined 50 percent backed the notion in 2010, when a legalization ballot initiative went down to defeat.

In 1969, just 13 percent favored some form of legalization, vastly eclipsed by the 49 percent of voters who believed harsher penalties were the answer. In 1983, the pro-legalization crowd comprised 30 percent of poll respondents.

"It just seems like an inevitable trend towards the liberalization of the laws," said Field Poll Director Mark DiCamillo, comparing the changes to the type of generational shift that drove a swift turnaround on same-sex marriage. He suggested that people see a distinction between cannabis and more dangerous drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

Multiple poll respondents contacted by The Sacramento Bee made a similar point about alcohol use, saying society already condones a habit at least as harmful as marijuana and perhaps more so.

"I don't think it's any worse than alcohol," said Janice Holland, a 62-year-old poll respondent who lives in Kern County. "So I think at a certain point people have the ability _ and the brain growth, when you're adults _ to make decisions about whether or not you want to get high."

In the nearly two decades since California set the pace for marijuana reform by approving medical marijuana with Proposition 215, other states have gone further. Washington and Colorado voted in 2012 to legalize recreational use of the substance, repudiating the zero-tolerance mentality that had driven years of uncompromising drug enforcement.

Despite California's apparent receptiveness to a similar change, attempts at legalization or increased regulation have faltered in the last few years. Voters in 2010 decisively rejected Proposition 19, which would have largely permitted the personal use of marijuana and empowered local governments to tax and regulate the drug's sale. Attempts by the Legislature to create a state-level regulatory agency have failed.

Cannabis remains a federally prohibited substance classified as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it has no proven medical use and carries the highest possible risk of abuse. The Obama administration has embraced a cautious live-and-let-live approach with states that ease marijuana statutes, saying it would not sue Washington or Colorado and releasing a memo advising U.S. attorneys to defer to "strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems" at the state or local level.

Californians could get a chance to weigh in again soon. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, an avowed legalization advocate, announced in October he would head a panel studying legalization with an eye toward placing a measure on the 2016 ballot. Three separate legalization ballot measures have been submitted to the California attorney general's office this year.

"It's not the law yet, so the public (in California) is kind of out in front of their legislators and the established norms," DiCamillo said, adding that "the odds are improving with each passing election cycle" of voters affirming marijuana legalization.

One of the three proposals, which would allow Californians age 21 and over to buy and use marijuana, received broad support from poll respondents. When read the measure's summary, 56 percent said they would vote yes against 39 percent who said they would vote no.

Democrats and voters without a party preference resoundingly signaled their support, with nearly two-thirds saying they would vote yes. By contrast, 58 percent of Republicans rejected the idea. While support declined among older voters, no age group emerged as a clear "no" vote _ Californians older than 65 displayed a 47-47 percent split.

Another of those three legalization initiatives was filed on Thursday. Stephen Gutwillig of the Drug Policy Alliance, the latest ballot measure's proponent, said the organization hasn't decided whether to pursue a campaign in 2014 or in 2016. But he still believes the prospects have improved since 2010.

"It is more clear than ever that Californians are ready to try something new," said Gutwillig, the Drug Policy Alliance's national deputy director. "They're ready to control marijuana in a different way."

The Field Poll's findings did not impress John Lovell, a lobbyist for the California Police Chiefs Association and the California Narcotics Officers Association. He emphasized the difference between backing legalization in the abstract and rallying support behind a specific proposed law, with all of its nuances and interlocking repercussions.

"When you actually talk about the details of what a legalization proposal means, then voters take a very different view," Lovell said, referencing the unsuccessful Proposition 19 campaign. "Most people don't think it's a good idea," he added, "that a bus driver driving their children to school is an avowed marijuana user."

(c)2013 The Sacramento Bee