U.S. Attitudes Toward Drugs Favor Treatment, Not Jail

Pew Research Center | Published April 2014

The public appears ready for a truce in the long-running war on drugs. A national survey by the Pew Research Center finds that 67% of Americans say that the government should focus more on providing treatment for those who use illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine. Just 26% think the government’s focus should be on prosecuting users of such hard drugs.

Support for a treatment-based approach to illegal drug use spans nearly all demographic groups. And while Republicans are less supportive of the treatment option than are Democrats or independents, about half of Republicans (51%) say the government should focus more on treatment than prosecution in dealing with illegal drug users.

As a growing number of states ease penalties for drug possession, the public expresses increasingly positive views of the move away from mandatory sentences for non-violent drug crimes. By nearly two-to-one (63% to 32%), more say it is a good thing than a bad thing that some states have moved away from mandatory sentences for non-violent drug offenders. In 2001, Americans were evenly divided over the move by some states to abandon mandatory drug terms.

The survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted Feb. 14-23 among 1,821 adults, finds that support for the legalization of marijuana use continues to increase. And fully 75% of the public –including majorities of those who favor and oppose the legal use of marijuana – think that the sale and use of marijuana will eventually be legal nationwide.

By wide margins, the public views marijuana as less harmful than alcohol, both to personal health and to society more generally. Moreover, just as most Americans prefer a less punitive approach to the use of drugs such as heroin and cocaine, an even larger majority (76% of the public) – including 69% of Republicans and 79% of Democrats – think that people convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana should not have to serve time in jail.

The Pew Research Center’s report on U.S. drug policy comes at a pivotal moment in the national debate over how best to deal with drug abuse. 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. Separately, the United States Sentencing Commission is expected to vote soon on a proposal to lessen the federal sentence for drug dealers.

More and more states are acting to revise drug laws: Between 2009 and 2013, 40 states took some action to ease their drug laws according to a Pew Research Center analysis of data provided by the National Conference on State Legislatures and the Vera Institute.

The public remains concerned over the problem of drug abuse – both nationally and locally. In fact, a large majority says that drug abuse across the country is either a crisis (32%) or a serious problem (55%). Half regard the problem of drug abuse in their neighborhoods, including its schools, that seriously. These views have not changed much since the mid-1990s.

At the same time, there has been a major shift in attitudes on whether or not the use of marijuana should be legal. As recently as four years ago, about half (52%) said they thought the use of marijuana should not be legal; 41% said marijuana use should be legal. Today those numbers are roughly reversed – 54% favor marijuana legalization while 42% are opposed.

When asked a more detailed question about marijuana use, 44% say it should be legal only for medicinal use, 39% say it should be legal for personal use and just 16% say it should not be legal at all. Majorities across nearly all demographic and partisan groups say the use of marijuana should be legal, at least for medicinal use.

Despite the growing support for marijuana legalization, however, many Americans express concerns over possible consequences from legalization. More than half (54%) say that legalizing marijuana would lead to more underage people trying it. While people are 65 and older are most likely to say that legalization would lead to more underage people trying marijuana (69%), roughly half of those in younger age groups – including 51% of those under 30 — agree.

On a personal level, most Americans say that, if marijuana were legal, they would be bothered by people using the drug in public (63%), though fewer (41%) would be bothered if a store or business selling marijuana opened in their neighborhood. Just 15% would be bothered if people used marijuana in their own homes.