Is South Carolina ready for medical marijuana?

That could be the case as a new Winthrop Poll shows more than 40 percent of South Carolinians find marijuana use acceptable.

“I was surprised that many tolerated pot smoking among adults,” said Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political scientist who conducted the poll.

“There was an implication in the question that it might be recreational,” he added, “so for more than four out of 10 people to find that acceptable, it makes me wonder, ‘What if I asked about decriminalization only for medical purposes?’ ”

The survey asked people how they feel about adults smoking marijuana — and whether respondents strongly approved or disapproved or merely somewhat approved or disapproved.

South Carolina’s Legislature did not debate medical marijuana last year, though several western and New England states have moved to decriminalize such use. Colorado and Washington have legalized pot’s recreational use.

Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, said Wednesday he was not surprised by the Winthrop Poll results — even though the question implied that people may be using it illegally.

“I think more and more Americans are coming to recognize that marijuana is far less harmful than alcohol,” he said, “and we’re seeing record high support for treating it that way.”

A Gallup poll released earlier this month showed 58 percent of American voters think the use of marijuana should be made legal. About 39 percent said no. The result showed an increase from when Gallup asked the same question two years ago. In 2011, 50 percent supported legalization.

Jeff Moore, executive director of the S.C. Sheriff’s Association, said that group hasn’t discussed marijuana legalization formally, but the argument against it has been that marijuana is a gateway drug to more serious drug abuse.

“I did have a sheriff the other day at lunch say, ‘You can bet your bottom dollar in 10 years it will be legal in South Carolina and throughout the rest of the U.S.’ That’s his personal opinion,” Moore said. “The counter-argument is that if there are gateway drugs, it’s legal things like alcohol and cigarettes.”

Tvert said he wasn’t sure why marijuana legalization was moving more rapidly outside the South, but he noted Alabama has seen a bill to legalize its use for medical purposes, while Louisiana and North Carolina have seen recent efforts to decrease penalties.

The U.S. Department of Justice has said it won’t interfere with state laws and others that effectively regulate marijuana for medical use.

When asked whether adults smoking marijuana was acceptable or not, 20 percent of South Carolina respondents said it was strongly acceptable; 23 percent said it was somewhat acceptable; 14 percent said it was somewhat unacceptable; and 41 percent said it was strongly unacceptable. The rest either didn’t know or wouldn’t answer.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.