I ran into Dave Borden of the Drug Reform Coordination Network at last week's Drug Policy Alliance conference, and he mentioned a Zogby poll question DRCNet had commissioned, asking people whether they'd be likely to use "hard drugs such as heroin or cocaine" if those substances were legal. The results:
Ninety-ninety percent of respondents answered, "No." Only 0.6 percent said "Yes." The remaining 0.4 percent weren't sure.
Borden sees this finding as undermining the arguments against repealing prohibition, and to some extent he's right. Many people who are confident of their own ability to resist the lure of legalized drugs no doubt are less sanguine about their neighbors' strength of will, and they may find evidence like this reassuring. Then again, people don't always tell the truth in surveys, especially on touchy subjects such as drug use.
There's reason to believe at least some of the people in this Zogby survey were being less than completely honest, since some of them are already using "hard drugs such heroin or cocaine." In the 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 2.5 percent of the respondents admitted using cocaine in the previous year, and 0.2 percent admitted using heroin. Even allowing for some overlap between those two groups, that's several times the percentage of the Zogby poll respondents who said they'd be inclined to use "hard drugs" if they were legal, and that's without considering methamphetamine, psychedelics (which most people probably consider "hard drugs"), etc. Maybe the current cocaine and heroin users are attracted only by these drugs' illicit status, and maybe they have the self-insight to recognize that they're suckers for the forbidden-fruit effect. Or maybe a bunch of them lied.
To reconcile its results with the NSDUH data, DRCNet notes that the Zogby poll, unlike the NSDUH, did not include anyone younger than 18. But the rates of heroin and cocaine use among 18-to-25-year-olds in the NSDUH were higher than the rates among 12-to-17-year-olds; in the over-25 group, cocaine use also was higher, while heroin use was the same. DRCNet suggests another explanation that carries more weight: The Zogby poll had "a statistical margin of error of 3.1 percentage points" (whereas the NSDUH survey is big enough that differences of less than one percentage point are statistically significant). It's striking that total cocaine and heroin use in the U.S. (at least insofar as it's accurately measured by surveys) is small enough to be swallowed by the margin of error in your average political poll.
Another difficulty with the Zogby drug question is that people do not always accurately predict their own behavior. Even if all the respondents were candid in denying any intention of trying currently illicit drugs once they were legal, their attitudes might change once these substances were available from reputable, regulated companies at reasonable prices in a wide variety of quality-controlled forms, free of the hazards associated with the black market. Denying that possibility (and I'm not saying that DRCNet is denying it) may be expedient, but it's not honest or credible. Better to acknowledge that use of illegal drugs would go up if prohibition were repealed while emphasizing that the important question (from a strictly utilitarian perspective) is the extent to which problematic use would rise, and how the costs associated with it would compare to the costs imposed by the war on drugs.