By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - The number of California voters who would support a ballot initiative legalizing recreational marijuana has tipped higher since Colorado and Washington State adopted such measures last year, a new poll shows.
About 55 percent of voters surveyed by the Field Research Corp. said they support the legalization of marijuana for recreational use by adults, and about the same percentage said they would vote for a proposed ballot initiative that aims to do that.
That number was up slightly from results of a Field poll in February that showed support by 54 percent support of the California electorate, the first time a clear majority of expressed approval for legalized recreational pot.
A 2010 poll by San Francisco-based Field found 50 percent support, but a legalization measure on the California ballot in November of that year was defeated, with 53 percent voting "no."
The federal government still classifies cannabis as an illegal narcotic. But in a major policy shift in August, the U.S. Justice Department said it would give states wide leeway to experiment with pot legalization, and started by letting Colorado and Washington carry out their new laws permitting recreational use.
The administration's previous stance strongly opposing the 2010 California ballot measure, Proposition 19, was cited by some as a likely contributing factor to its defeat.
The latest findings mirror Gallup poll results released earlier this fall showing nationwide support for pot legalization among 58 percent of voters.
The trend in favor of legalization reflects a dramatic shift in public opinion since pollsters first started asking voters about the issue in 1969. At that time, just 13 percent of California voters told the Field poll they supported pot legalization, and 12 percent nationally told Gallup pollsters that they backed it.
If a legalization initiative qualifies for next November's ballot and is passed, California would become the third state to allow the personal possession and use of marijuana for other than medical purposes.
Voters in Colorado and Washington State approved such measures in November 2012 and are now struggling to develop a regulatory framework for the sale of recreational marijuana.
California in 1996 became the first state to legalize medical marijuana, and 19 other states, including Washington and Colorado, have since followed suit, along with the District of Columbia.
In the latest Field poll, support for legalizing pot was highest among those registered as Democrats, at 65 percent, followed by political independents, at 62 percent. Republicans polled favored legalization by 39 percent, compared with 58 percent who were opposed. The remainder were undecided.
Supporters of a ballot initiative that would legalize recreational marijuana for consumers over the age of 21 have until February to gather the more than 500,000 petition signatures needed to place the measure on a statewide ballot next fall.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Steve Gorman and Leslie Adler)