By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - An overwhelming majority of Floridians would support legalizing marijuana when used for medical purposes in the Sunshine State, a poll released on Thursday showed.
The Quinnipiac University poll of registered voters in the state showed 82 percent favored allowing adults to use cannabis for medical purposes as long as it is prescribed by a doctor, with 16 percent opposed.
A total of 20 states and the District of Columbia have approved public medical marijuana programs since California led the way in 1996, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Florida could become the first state from the old Deep South to approve a medical marijuana statute, however.
The poll showed registered voters divided - 48 percent in favor to 46 percent opposed - on whether adults should be allowed to possess small amounts of marijuana for personal use. But strong support for medical marijuana use, as highlighted in the survey, could help get the issue on the ballot in time for elections set for late next year.
On other topics, the poll showed strong support among Floridians, except among African-American voters, for the state's "Stand Your Ground" self-defense law.
The law came under fire during last summer's trial of former neighborhood watch guard George Zimmerman, who was acquitted in July of second-degree murder and manslaughter for the 2012 shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.
Critics say the statute encourages violence, since people have no duty to retreat from confrontations and can use deadly force to defend themselves if they reasonably fear for their lives or believe they may be victim of great bodily harm.
The poll said support for the law among Florida voters stood at 60-34 percent. Support was 66-29 percent among white voters and 56-36 percent among Hispanic voters. Black voters opposed the statute 56-35 percent.
Instead of getting the usual "bounce" from announcing his candidacy this month, former Governor Charlie Crist saw his lead over incumbent Governor Rick Scott erode slightly under an avalanche of negative ads depicting him as an untrustworthy flip-flopper.
The poll showed Crist, a newly minted Democrat, leading his Republican successor by a 47-40 margin. But that was down from a 10-point lead in June and a 16-point advantage in March.
"This poll has good news for both candidates," Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, told a news conference. "It's good news for Charlie Crist, because he's still ahead, and it's good news for Rick Scott, because he's gaining."
The Quinnipiac poll was conducted November 12-17 among 1,646 registered voters. It had an error margin of 2.4 percentage points.
(Editing by Tom Brown and Ken Wills)