Three out of four agree drug war is a failure

According to a report by Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, most Americans view the nation's drug war as a failure, and there is scant hope it will ever succeed. Nearly three-quarters of Americans say we are losing the drug war, and just as many say that insatiable demand will perpetuate the nation's drug habit. Yet this deep sense of futility has not generated more momentum for alternative anti-drug strategies such as establishing more treatment programs for drug users or decriminalizing the use of some drugs.

The public still gives higher priority to traditional get-tough approaches, such as interdicting drugs at the border and arresting dealers in this country, although declining numbers regard those tactics as effective.

Despite a renewed focus by the news media and entertainment industry on the nation's drug problem, reflected in the attention drawn by the Oscar-nominated film "Traffic," public opinion on anti-drug strategies has not changed markedly since the late 1980s. While some states have moved to roll back so-called mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders, nearly as many people say this is a bad idea (45%) as think it is a good idea (47%). Interdiction continues to be seen as the most effective anti-drug policy, although like other such strategies, it is viewed as less fruitful than a decade ago.

The public is more compassionate than condemnatory when it comes to the users of illegal drugs, as opposed to those who profit from the drug trade. A majority of Americans (52%) believe that drug use should be treated as a disease, compared to 35% who would treat it as a crime.

Although drug abuse is given less priority than in the early 1990s when the Bush administration declared a "war on drugs," it still is seen as a significant danger by most - particularly African-Americans and those with lower incomes and less education. Nearly three-quarters of blacks (74%) say they are very worried about having a family member develop a drug problem, compared to just 39% of whites. And increasingly, drugs are hitting home in rural areas; people in those areas cite drugs as the top community problem.

While interdiction is regarded as the most effective anti-drug strategy, the public is divided over the current U.S. policy of providing large-scale assistance to Colombia and other drug-producing nations. Slightly over one-quarter (28%) favor cutting military aid to these nations, while a plurality (37%) is satisfied with current aid levels and 23% back increased military assistance. The public is far more opposed to providing financial aid to these countries, however.

The gender gap on these issues is more significant, as both white and black women take a more punitive approach to drug sentencing questions than their male counterparts. For instance, more men than women in both races say that too many people are in jail for drug possession (53%-41%). Black women, in particular, are much more opposed to taking even modest steps toward decriminalizing marijuana than are black men or whites of either gender.

Legalization of drugs remains a divisive issue - 49% favor retaining criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana, about the same as felt that way in 1985. But by better than a three-to-one margin (73%-21%), the public supports permitting doctors to prescribe marijuana for their patients.

The Pew Research Center's survey of attitudes on illegal drugs and drug policies, conducted Feb. 14-19 among more than 1,500 adults, including an oversample of African-Americans, finds a striking contrast in long-term trends on attitudes toward crime and drugs. In the mid-1990s, Americans were just as pessimistic about crime as drugs, if not more so. In March 1994, 77% said the nation was losing ground against crime, while 62% said the same about drugs. But today, the number who are pessimistic about the struggle against crime has fallen to 38%, while far more (54%) say the nation is losing ground on drugs.

The concern residents of rural areas express about drugs - seen in the number who identify it as the most important problem in their community - is rooted in their sense that drug problems are getting worse and might strike closer to home. Fully 45% of rural residents feel their community is losing ground on the issue of drugs, while only 18% see it making progress. Moreover, 61% of rural residents are concerned about family members becoming involved with drugs. Residents of large cities are also concerned with drugs in their communities, but are slightly more optimistic that they are making progress on the problem.

While Americans still mostly look to law enforcement to curb illegal drug use, a slim majority says that, in general, drug abuse should be treated as a disease rather than as a crime. This may be the strongest evidence showing that Americans are open to alternative anti-drug strategies, although those strategies themselves have yet to win much support.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this issue divides Americans along political, generation and even religious lines. By a two-to-one margin (61%-30%), Democrats think of drug use as a disease rather than a crime. Republicans, on the other hand, are more likely to see drug use as a criminal behavior than a health problem (48% to 38%).

Younger people are far more liberal in their view of drug use than their elders - 58% of those under 30 say drug use is a disease, not a crime. By comparison, just 41% of seniors (age 65 and older) think of drug use as a disease.

There is also a significant religious divide on the moral implications of drug use. Evangelical Protestants are about twice as likely to think of drug use a criminal act than are mainline Protestants 48% to 25%), while nearly two-thirds of the latter (64%) say drug use is a disease.

How survey was conducted

Results for the survey are based on telephone interviews conducted under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates among a nationwide sample of 1,513 adults, 18 years of age or older, during the period February 14-19, 2001. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 3 percentage points. For results based on either Form 1 (N=728) or Form 2 (N=785), the sampling error is plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls.

For a complete study of this report online go to:, and for information on methodology used to produce this report -