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
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.
How survey was conducted
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.
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