Metro

Voters evenly split on legal marijuana, poll shows

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Massachusetts voters are evenly divided over a proposed ballot question that would legalize the recreational use of marijuana, but they strongly support another proposed referendum that would allow more charter schools in the state, according to a new Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll.

Voters also overwhelmingly back legislation that would protect transgender people from discrimination in malls, restaurants, and other public accommodations — and allow people to use the public restroom that matches their gender identity.

Even more popular was a proposed “millionaires’ tax” that would raise rates on residents with annual incomes of $1 million or more. It garnered runaway support in the poll.

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The survey clarifies public sentiment on some of the most divisive issues in Massachusetts as forces on both sides gear up for costly ballot fights this fall and for massive lobbying campaigns on Beacon Hill.

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The live landline and cellphone poll of 500 likely voters was conducted May 2 to 5 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

On one of the most closely watched ballot campaigns, 43 percent said they would support legalizing marijuana for those 21 and older, while 46 percent said they would oppose it. Eleven percent were undecided.

Support for the question was strongest among younger voters and minorities. Older voters and Republicans were most opposed, although opposition was also strong among women and members of union households.

“If it works for you for a medical reason, fine,” said Bob Bruno, a 75-year-old retired steel mill and construction worker from Pittsfield, in an interview after the poll. “If you legalize it, it gets totally out of hand.”

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But Melissa Wilson, a 37-year-old registered nurse from Tyngsborough, said she would vote for the measure.

Unlike opioids, “I have really not seen marijuana cause problems, because most people get hungry, chill out, and hang out,” she said. “It’s not necessarily proven to be the gateway drug that it was supposed to be in the ’70s.”

If approved on the November ballot, the measure would allow retail sales beginning in January 2018. It would also permit adults to grow up to 12 plants per household for personal use, which might be a sticking point for voters.

Asked specifically about growing marijuana at home, 50 percent of likely voters were opposed, while 40 percent supported home cultivation.

Overall, the poll indicated that support for legalizing the recreational use of marijuana has barely budged since a Globe poll in July 2014 found 48 percent were in favor and 47 percent opposed.

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Voters have legalized recreational marijuana use in four states — Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and Oregon — as well as in Washington, D.C.

Backers argue that if marijuana is regulated like alcohol, it could raise tax revenue and improve the health and safety of children by moving marijuana sales from the streets to licensed stores that are required to check IDs.

Opponents — including Governor Charlie Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey, and Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston — argue that when marijuana is legal, young people are more likely to use it and that legalization might harm efforts to combat the state’s opioid epidemic.

The poll suggests “it’s going to be an uphill fight” for marijuana advocates because ballot campaigns generally need an early lead to cushion them against voters who have an ingrained opposition to any change in the status quo, said David Paleologos, the director of Suffolk University’s Political Research Center, which conducted the poll. “The ‘yes’ side needs to calm people’s fears and disconnect the issue from opioids,” Paleologos added.

On another highly charged issue, 50 percent of likely voters said they would support a November ballot question to lift the cap on the number of charter schools in Massachusetts. Thirty-three percent were opposed, and 16 percent were undecided.

Support for the question was solid among virtually all voters, regardless of age, race, gender, political affiliation, and geography. The results represent a shift from a Globe poll in August 2014, when voters were torn over the issue, with 47 percent opposed to lifting the cap and 43 percent supporting such a change.

One reason for the tilt in favor of charter schools: Backers appear to be winning the propaganda war.

Forty-nine percent said they agree with the argument, advanced by charter school advocates, that the schools offer better options for students and parents. Just 32 percent said they agree with the opponents’ argument that charter schools drain resources from traditional public schools.

Dan Apstein, a 41-year-old from Lexington who works for a software company, said he supports lifting the cap based on the experience of friends whose children attend charter schools.

“They like them,” he said, adding that, “if your kid can get into them, they’re superior to the public options.”

Charter schools are generally not unionized, and critics worry about their financial impact on local school budgets, because students who attend charter schools take with them a certain amount in state aid from their hometown districts.

“I’d like to see the state — instead of lifting the cap on charter schools — give more money to the public schools,” said Virginia Fuller, a 75-year-old retired teacher from Lynn, who responded to the poll.

A business-backed coalition has said it plans to spend $12 million to push the charter measure this fall, while teachers unions are expected to pour significant resources into a campaign to defeat the referendum.

If approved, the ballot question would allow for the creation or expansion of 12 charters per year, with a preference for proposals in the lowest-performing districts, greatly adding to the state’s existing stock of 81 charter schools.

On another contentious issue, 53 percent of likely voters support legislation to protect transgender people from discrimination and allow them to use the bathroom that conforms to their gender identity. Thirty percent were opposed, and 15 percent were undecided.

The legislation had languished on Beacon Hill until late last month, when House lawmakers released a new version of the bill and Governor Baker, who had refused to take a stance on the issue, signaled that he would not veto the legislation if it reaches his desk.

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, a supporter of the bill, said his chamber will debate the legislation on Thursday.

Fuller was among those surveyed who would support the bill. Although she doesn’t know any transgender people, she said, “I want to make sure people get their rights, and if that’s something people need, then fine.”

She added that during a recent visit to New York City, some of her friends used a gender-neutral bathroom in a restaurant.

“And you know what?” Fuller said. “It was OK.”

Asked about a proposed “millionaires tax,” the poll found lopsided support, with 70 percent favoring higher taxes on the wealthy and 24 percent opposed. Six percent were undecided.

Backed by labor unions, religious organizations, and liberal groups, the measure would raise rates by 4 percentage points on those who earn more than $1 million annually and direct the $1 billion in annual revenue to education and transportation.

Because the change would require an amendment to the state constitution, it faces a series of legal and political hurdles before it can appear before voters on the ballot in 2018.

Michael Levenson can be reached at michael.levenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.