Photograph by Matthew Staver — Bloomberg/Getty Images
By Verne Kopytoff
April 14, 2015

A majority of Americans think marijuana should be legal, according to a new poll, highlighting the rapid change from the stiff opposition of just a few years ago.

Fifty-three percent of people said that pot should be decriminalized, the Pew Research Center found in a survey published Tuesday. The findings, which are in line with the past couple of years, are in sharp contrast to the public perception seen as recently as 2006, when only one-third of people said they favored legalization.

The report shows the degree to which attitudes about marijuana have shifted, particularly among the younger generation. It also puts the spotlight on a deep divide in thinking among people based on their political affiliations, ethnicity, and age.

For example, the survey found that Democrats strongly opposed the criminalization of marijuana, with 59% saying it should be legal. But only 39% of Republicans agreed.

Marijuana has become a hot-button topic as an increasing number of states have moved to legalize pot sales. Currently, medical marijuana is allowed in 23 states, while recreational pot use is approved in four, plus Washington, D.C. A handful of other states could join the legal list following ballot measures in the upcoming 2016 election. But the drug remains illegal on the federal level, making it risky for anyone to possess or sell large quantities.

Presidential candidates will likely have to discuss the issue in the upcoming campaign, which is just now starting in earnest. Most have yet to stake out a position on the issue, but shifting public opinion will likely color the debate, and it gives cover to those who may have otherwise supported a crackdown. Last month, Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican who recently announced his candidacy for president, co-authored legislation that would decriminalize medical marijuana.

Age was a significant factor in the Pew Center’s poll. The older people got, the more they opposed legalizing cannabis, showing the generational divide.

The youngest respondents, aged 18 to 34, were the most enthusiastic, with 68% saying they support legal marijuana. Middle-aged people, aged from 35 to 50, also favored legalization, but at a lower rate of 52%. Meanwhile, Baby Boomers, up to age 69, were split evenly over the topic. Elderly respondents overwhelmingly opposed legalization, with only 29% favoring legal pot.

In terms of ethnicity, 55% of whites and 58% of blacks favor legalization. But Hispanics strongly oppose it, with only 40% saying they support legal pot.

For more about the marijuana business, watch this Fortune video:

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