By Eric M. Johnson
(Reuters) - A record but still narrow majority of California voters, or 54 percent, favor legalizing marijuana for personal, recreational use with restrictions like those placed on alcohol, a poll showed on Wednesday.
California was the first of 19 states and the District of Columbia to legalize pot for medical use, doing so in 1996, although voters rejected efforts to legalize the drug for recreational use in 2010.
But support for legalizing pot, which the federal government considers an illegal narcotic, appears to be growing in the U.S. West, where Colorado and Washington state last year became the first states to legalize its recreational use.
Roughly 54 percent of California voters surveyed by the non-partisan Field Poll supported legalizing pot, with support highest among residents of the San Francisco Bay Area. Another 43 percent opposed legalization.
The support was the highest since the Field Poll first asked about pot legalization in 1969, when 13 percent of California voters were in favor. In 2010, the last time Field Poll asked voters about the issue, 50 percent favored legalization.
Of the 834 registered voters polled, roughly 72 percent supported existing laws governing the California medical marijuana industry, one of the nation's largest. Some 67 percent opposed federal efforts to crack down on businesses operating therein.
Additionally, 58 percent of voters polled said they would favor allowing dispensaries in their town or city, with stronger support in more liberal enclaves of the state, such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, the data show.
The aging "baby boomer" generation with more laid-back attitudes about pot use was driving the increase in support for more relaxed marijuana rules, said Mark DiCamillo, the director of The Field Poll.
"They are basically replacing an older generation that was more opposed to legalizing marijuana," he said.
Majorities of voters age 65 or older, Latinos age 40 or older, and Republicans oppose legalizing marijuana, the data show.
The poll, conducted from February 5-17, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Tim Dobbyn)