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David Hill: Will pot go up in smoke?

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In Denver last week for client business, I got to hear about (and smell) the burgeoning marijuana experiment the state has embarked upon.

There was a lot of talk about the state’s first official marijuana death — a 19-year-old ate a marijuana-laced cookie, became “agitated” and then jumped off a balcony. At a music venue I visited on Friday night, the smell of marijuana drifted in the air. Of course pot has been in the mile-high air at concerts all along, but this was the first time it struck me that, of course, “it’s legal now.” There would be no basis for complaint to security guards hovering nearby. And on the plane ride home, a Colorado mom seated next to me, with her 22-month-old toddler in tow, going to visit Grandma, confided that she and her husband are Democrats and that they are concerned about their child’s exposure to second-hand marijuana smoke all around their Denver home and its yard.

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Small snippets of real life, for sure, but they suggest that marijuana backers are now going to have to contemplate the whirlwind they have sown. Will there be any buyer’s remorse?

It didn’t surprise me that Pew released a poll report a year ago saying that, “For the first time in more than four decades of polling on the issue, a majority of Americans favor legalizing the use of marijuana.” A year ago, 52 percent supported legalizing pot.

Today, it’s 54 percent, up 13 points since 2010, says Pew data. How are people arriving at this epiphany, that marijuana is suddenly OK?

My own polling, and that of others, suggests that people think they have sufficient knowledge of the topic to make this about-face.

Asking something like, “How much do you know about marijuana?” now elicits a modal response of “A lot.” But do they really know as much as they think? Where is all this newly found knowledge coming from?

It’s probably not from experience, if Pew’s polling is to be believed. Only 48 percent have reported ever trying marijuana and only 25 percent have done so in the last year. Permissiveness is growing at a faster rate than actual pot smoking, so there must be other channels of learning that empower relaxed views.

I am also guessing that this might be one of the social issues — like gay marriage — where the proponents are simply beating opposition into submission. People are tired of fighting it and consequently surrender to what Gen. Robert E. Lee politely called being “compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources” when he surrendered his Confederate Army at Appomattox.

And with the patina of “medical” marijuana driving sentiment for legalization, it’s a “lost cause” to fight pot.

But will it stay this way?

I believe that a backlash is coming as “new knowledge” about pot is learned. Marijuana legalization could curiously become the next prohibition, a bold social experiment that fails. Evidence of this already shows up in the same Pew polling. In 2013, Pew pollsters found that a narrow majority would be “uncomfortable” being around pot smokers. This year, 63 percent said they’d be bothered if people used marijuana in public. What do they think is going to happen post-legalization?

A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll points to another potential reason for the turnaround. Last month those pollsters found that Americans consider tobacco to be more harmful to health than alcohol, sugar or marijuana. Just when we finally convinced Americans that smoking is bad — including the insidious second-hand exposure to the smoke of others — we unleash pot smoking that makes it unsafe for a toddler to play in her own yard. Pot is likely to become the demon that tobacco has become when the health effects of pot start to show.

Hill is a pollster who has worked for Republican campaigns and causes since 1984.