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Walter Armstrong Walter Armstrong

Major New Survey: Two-Thirds of Americans Favor Broad Liberalization of Drug Policies


The latest figures reveal a sweeping change in attitudes.

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Art by Heather Eatman

Critics of the War on Drugs will be heartened by a major national survey released today by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

The stats reveal a broad shift in American attitudes about how drug use (and addiction) should be addressed at the level of federal policy. On issue after issue, a significant majority—typically two-to-one—think that the solutions to the problems caused by drugs should come from the public health rather than the criminal justice realm.

This marks a dramatic reversal from attitudes in 2001, when the Pew survey was last done.

 According to the survey, which polled 1,821 adults, 67% say that the government should focus more on providing treatment to rather than on prosecuting users of illegal drugs like heroin and cocaine, while 26% say the opposite. By a similar ratio—63% and 32%—Americans support the trend among states to end mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. (In 2001, sentiment was evenly split.)

Attitudes about the legalization of marijuana have changed dramatically even in the past four years: 54% favor legalization, 42% do not; in 2010, the ratio was 41% and 52%. Three-quarters of those surveyed say that minor possession of pot should not result in jail time.

Many may find the most surprising statistics in attitudes about the relative dangers of alcohol and marijuana. In terms of harm to a person, 69% say that alcohol is more dangerous, 15% say pot. Similarly, 63% think that even if marijuana were widely available, alcohol would still cause more damage, while  23% say pot. At the same time, more than half think that the legalization of marijuana is likely to increase its use among teens.

“The report comes at a pivotal moment in the national debate over how best to deal with drug abuse,” the Pew reported on its website. “There is a new bipartisan effort in Congress to give federal judges more discretion in low-level drug cases and reduce mandatory sentences for some drug crimes.”

It will be interesting to see whether or not this apparently fundamental rethink in drug policy by the American people will embolden congressional bipartisanship on drug policy as the midterm elections approach in November and beyond.