Public Opinion Shifts Toward Treating Drug Abuse as a Disease
Articles / Blog
04-15-14 Category: Drug Rehab

A recent report from the Pew Research Center has found a significant shift in public opinion toward treating addiction as a disease instead of a law enforcement issue, and a sense that legalization of marijuana might be inevitable. Sixty-seven percent of 1,821 people across the country who were surveyed said the government should focus more on providing treatment for users of illegal hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine instead of prosecuting them. The report, America’s New Drug Policy Landscape, was conducted in February, 2014.

The report says that 63 percent of those surveyed feel that shifting away from prosecution and mandatory drug sentences is a good thing. That’s a significant increase from 2001, when only 47 percent favored moving away from mandatory drug sentences. Just 26 percent think there should be greater emphasis on prosecuting illegal drug users.

This attitude shift is supported by more than half of virtually all demographic and partisan groups identified in the survey, although there are significant differences. More than three-quarters of Democrats (77 percent) want government to focus more on treatment, compared to 69 percent of Independents and 51 percent of Republicans. Among blacks, 81 percent support the shift, compared to 66 percent of whites and 61 percent of Hispanics.

Support is highest (77 percent) among people between the ages of 18 and 29, followed by those between the ages of 30 and 49 (68 percent) and 50 to 64 (66 percent). Support is lowest among those 65 or older, although 54 percent of those people still support a shift in focus from prosecution to treatment.

Who Won the War on Drugs?

The federal government is slowly reconsidering its approach to the “War on Drugs,” which was formally declared in 1971 by then-President Richard Nixon. Harsh zero-tolerance policies followed in the mid- to late-1980s, accompanied by mandatory drug sentencing and a rapid rise in rates of incarceration. A senior writer with the Pew Research Center says that while the federal government is talking about changing its policies, it is the states – most drug offenders are incarcerated in state facilities – that have been leaders in changing drug policy. Between 2009 and 2013, 40 states have eased up on drug laws to some extent. There are more than 1.3 million state prison inmates, and for about 17 percent of them, their most serious offense involved drugs.

Violent crime rates are down, public attitudes have changed, and both state and federal budgets have been cramped by the economic downturn of the so-called Great Recession. There are almost 200,000 federal prison inmates, and almost 50 percent of them are there for drug offense convictions, which may be part of the rationale for federal Attorney General Eric Holder’s public calls for reducing sentences for low-level drug offenders, and the apparent willingness to overlook legalization of marijuana by the states of Colorado and Washington.

Is Legalization of Marijuana Inevitable?

Whether or not they approve, three-quarters of those surveyed (75%) believe that the sale and use of marijuana will eventually be legalized nationally. Roughly the same proportion (76 percent, including 69 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of Democrats) said people convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana should not have to go to jail. When asked whether alcohol or marijuana is a bigger danger, 69 percent said alcohol is a greater danger to people’s health, and 63 percent said alcohol is a greater danger to society.

As recently as 2009, most people (52 percent) said they did not think use of marijuana should be legal. However, 52 percent now favor legalization. In response to a separate question, 44 percent said it should be legalized for medical use, 39 percent said it should be legal for personal use, and just 16 percent opposed legalization.

Despite the mounting support for legalization – which has never been higher – more than half of those surveyed (54 percent) expressed concern that legalization would result in more underage people trying it. According to the most recent data from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), almost 19 million people over the age of 12 (7.3 percent of the population) used marijuana in the month before the survey.

The survey found that if marijuana is legal, 83 percent of those surveyed would not be bothered if people used it in their own homes. That includes 60 percent of those who do not think it should be legal for personal or medicinal reasons. However, 63 percent would have a problem if people used marijuana in public. That includes a significant number (39 percent) of those who say personal use of marijuana by adults should be legal.

Public Perception of Drug Abuse as a Problem

Eighty-seven percent of those surveyed said that drug abuse is a crisis or a serious problem, down slightly from 90 percent in 2001. When asked about drug abuse as a local problem, more than one person in 10 (12 percent) said drug abuse is a crisis in their community, and 38 percent said it is a serious problem.

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