Survey Says…


Advocates of drug legalization do not usually look to opinion polls for encouragement. Survey after survey has found that a large majority of Americans enthusiastically supports the war on drugs. But a new poll commissioned by the Drug Policy Foundation reveals a previously overlooked complexity and diversity of views on the topic.

First, the good news: Less than 1 percent of those respondents who had never used cocaine said they would be likely to try it if the drug were legalized. Of the respondents who had not smoked marijuana, less than 5 percent said they would be likely to use legal pot. These findings, obtained from 1,401 anonymous telephone interviews based on a random nationwide sample, fly in the face of predictions by government officials that drug use would increase dramatically after legalization.

Furthermore, 36 percent of respondents supported legalization; this is slightly higher than the percentage who approved of legalization in a nationwide Los Angeles Times poll conducted last December. (The Drug Policy Foundation's poll was taken by Targeting Systems Inc. between Jan. 24 and Feb. 4.)

Respondents were particularly open-minded about the use of illegal drugs for medicinal purposes: 76 percent favored allowing physicians to prescribe heroin as a painkiller for terminally ill cancer patients, and 69 percent agreed that doctors should be permitted to treat glaucoma with marijuana. At the same time, 65 percent agreed that "all drug use is immoral and should be illegal," an apparently contradictory position.

Which brings us to the bad news. Even when the question was phrased to emphasize imprisonment of casual users, the use of the military for law enforcement, and the expenditure of tax dollars, 55 percent supported the drug war. What's more, 65 percent said law-enforcement officials should be allowed to "require you to take a drug test in order to keep your job," and 71 percent favored bringing the military into their neighborhoods to fight drug problems.

Finally, a finding with mixed implications: Respondents tended to view drug users much less severely than drug dealers, classifying the former as "ill" people in need of "treatment." Although this attitude is reflected in less harsh penalties, it ultimately undermines the principle that "adults should be allowed to make their own decisions about drug use"—a proposition endorsed by only 38 percent of the respondents.