September 14 (RNS)--Forty-four percent of Protestant pastors support the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, while only about 20 percent support decriminalizing the non-medicinal use of marijuana, according to a new survey.

The study of 518 Protestant ministers, commissioned by Phoenix-based Ellison Research, found surprisingly strong support for the use of marijuana to relieve pain for patients with cancer and other medical ailments.

Similar to a recent Ellison survey on the death penalty, the study found stronger support for medicinal marijuana use from pastors affiliated with the National Council of Churches as opposed to the more conservative National Association of Evangelicals.

Among NCC-affiliated pastors, 66 percent supported medicinal marijuana use while 33 percent opposed it. The numbers were almost exactly opposite for NAE-affiliated pastors, with only 31 percent supporting it and 69 percent opposed.

Ron Sellers, the firm's president, said the most interesting findings lie in the difference between pastors who either "strongly" or "somewhat" oppose or support the policy. The number of pastors who have lukewarm feelings on the subject--58 percent--is larger than the number who feel "strongly" either way, about 42 percent.

"Many ministers may be trying to balance a strong anti-drug position with compassion for people who have medical problems," Sellers said.

Sellers also noted that when asked about decriminalizing marijuana, older pastors were surprisingly more supportive. Just 4 percent of pastors under the age of 45 supported legalizing marijuana, while 12 percent of pastors over the age of 60 supported it.

The survey of 508 pastors had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.

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