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June 16, 2006 - Drug War Chronicle (US)

Among Whites, Imprisoning Drug Users a Minority Opinion, Survey Finds

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Three out of four white Americans believe drug users should get treatment, not prison time, a nationally representative survey has found. The minority of whites who support sending dopers to prison are more likely to make moral judgments about drug users, more likely to blame addicts for their addiction, more likely to deny that racism is a problem in the US, and more likely to believe -- incorrectly -- that blacks are more likely to use cocaine than whites.

The researchers measured moral values by asking respondents how strongly they agreed or disagreed with two statements: Drug users are evil; and if people took their religion more seriously they would not become addicted to drugs. The researchers measured racial beliefs about drugs by asking respondents whether they thought blacks or whites were more likely to use cocaine. Racial attitudes were tested by asking respondents to agree or disagree with two statements: Discrimination against African-Americans is no longer a problem in the United States; and over the past few years, African-Americans have gotten more economically than they deserve. Respondents were also asked if they were conservative or liberal, if they felt that law enforcement was effective in reducing the demand for and supply of drugs in America; and whether or not they believed that drug addicts have only themselves to blame for their addiction.

The study was published in the June issue of the International Journal of Drug Policy under the title "Five Grams of Coke: Racism, Moralism and White Public Opinion on Sanctions for First Time Possession." The study is part of a larger survey of public attitudes toward substance abuse whose results will be published later.

Conducted by Drs. Rosalyn Lee and Kenneth Rasinski at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center, the survey asked what should be the appropriate sanction for a first-time offender charged with possession of five grams of cocaine. The study found that an absolute majority of whites -- 51%--favored drug treatment, 26% favored probation, and only 23% favored sending him to prison. Dr. Lee told DRCNet the survey did not ask respondents if the drug possessor should just be left alone.

Regarding imprisonment, the survey gave respondents two choices: one year or five years. The survey found that only 5.5% were so punitive as to support a five-year sentence for first-time drug possession, while 17.6% supported a one-year sentence.

The study did not distinguish between crack and powder cocaine. Under federal law, possession of five grams of crack cocaine is punishable by a five-year mandatory minimum sentence. Five grams of powder cocaine merits no set prison sentence. Those laws are widely blamed for increasing the disparity between white and black imprisonment rates.

The study was conducted to assess why some Americans support imprisoning drug users and whether public policy, which favors imprisonment over treatment, was aligned with public opinion. "Scholars have suggested that racism and moralism have influenced American attitudes on addressing drug problems and we believe that this is the first study to empirically test whether these factors are related," Rasinski said.

"Our study shows that racial attitudes were related to the tendency to blame and make moral judgments about addicts for addiction; and those with a tendency to blame and moralize were more likely to support prison sentences," Lee said.

"Moralism drives drug laws, race drives harsh drug laws or 'moral panics,' and now we have social science, not just anecdotes to prove it," said Nora Callahan, executive director of The November Coalition, a grassroots organization devoted to freeing prisoners of the drug war. "Our members will be pleased to know that we've been speaking truth about our perceptions. We had a good idea that most people didn't like the long imprisonment for lots of 'drug crime,' too."

"In various surveys, people have shown what I would call a very warped sense of morality, and it is evident in this survey, too," said Charles Thomas, executive director of the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative (IDPI). "It's a morality that doesn't include things like compassion, mercy, and justice, but is about judging other people. This is what I would call a judgmental or authoritarian outlook," he told DRCNet.

Associating morality with its authoritarian variant is a mistake, Thomas said. "When researchers and the media talk about this judgmental outlook and call it morality, as opposed to the morality of compassion and justice, it creates an effect where people say 'If I want to be moral, I have to be judgmental and punitive and oppose this and that.'"

While many authoritarians view drug addiction as a choice -- and therefore something that should be punished as a "bad choice" -- viewing drug use as a choice does not have to imply support for throwing drug users in jail, said Thomas. "There are also various libertarian psychologists who believe there is at least a degree of choice in drug use, but they don't believe people should be punished for it. There are also people who will say that drug use is bad and a choice, but that the government shouldn't be involved in punishing people for it," he noted.

"For many religious people, the idea that someone would take a substance just for fun is wrong, just like masturbation is wrong," Thomas continued. "But they don't advocate that masturbation should be illegal. To the degree we can reach the group reflected in this survey, we might try to extend that perspective. Just because something may be a sin, it is not government's role to try to stamp it out. Our hope is that people who can't be convinced about the morality of drug use would just leave it up to God."

But that may not work, Thomas conceded. "On a deeper psychological level, these sorts of beliefs reflect an overall orientation toward the world," he said. "If at the deepest level of your being, you believe some people are so bad they should be sent to Hell, you probably won't be that upset if the government sends them to prison forever. A lot of the punitive aspects of our society stem from people having already accepted that some people deserve to be punished as sinners, but they don't ask whom should God punish and whom should the government punish."

Metaphysical ruminations notwithstanding, this study should help enlighten public attitudes, said Dr. Lee. "The findings of this study provide both a challenge and hope for the future," she said. "The challenge is overcoming the public misperception that drug use disorders are a moral problem associated with race. The hope is that that the gap between public support for substance abuse treatment and current public policy will close."

For the November Coalition's Callahan, the study provides more ammunition for the long struggle for justice. "I'm reminded of the words of long-departed organizer Saul Alinsky," she said. "In 'Rules for Radicals,' he tells those of us in the struggle for the long haul that we must have the patience of activism. Along with that patience of plodding ahead, we should watch for signs that can move goals forward in a hurry. He tells us that when the gap between what should be, and what actually is gets wide enough, a spark can light a prairie fire of change," she said. "We've seen that gap grow wider with the release of this report, and many new research and reports of late."

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