Americans Support Drug Policy Reform, Polling Data Shows


The DOJ decision to avert mandatory minimum sentencing for drug-related offenses in certain circumstances may come as a huge surprise given the federal government's relentless "War on Drugs" yet it aligns well with the nation's increasing frustration with ineffective drug policies and its growing tolerance for drug use. While the past four decades have been characterized by varying degrees of assault on the production, sale, and use of psychoactive drugs, they have also seen a four-fold increase in support for the legalization of marijuana, a commonly used benchmark for attitudes toward drug tolerance in America.

In January of this year, Reason-Rupe found that 53 percent of Americans agreed marijuana should be treated like alcohol. Yet in the same poll, 47 percent favored legalization explicitly for recreational purposes (while 49 percent opposed).

Historic Gallup polling on the topic of marijuana legalization finds that tolerance of marijuana use has shifted substantially since the 1960s. Perhaps surprisingly, amidst the backdrop of hippies, Woodstock, and free love of the late sixties, only 12 percent of Americans thought marijuana should be made legal in 1969, but that percentage has increased steadily since then, with the largest spike in support (12 points) between 1973-78 and the second largest gain (8 points) between 2005-09.  Support for legalization peaked in 2011 at 50 percent and dipped just slightly to 48 percent in the most recent Gallup polling data from November 2012.

Drug legalization is a complex topic and the Reason-Rupe poll aims to delve deeper into the issue to ascertain Americans' attitudes in a variety of areas. Since May 2011, the Reason-Rupe poll has asked 11 fresh and innovative questions regarding illegal drugs and the role of government in the drug war, providing a number of interesting findings that can help to inform the debate.

The poll has found strong support for legalization of medical marijuana. As recently as September 2012 nearly three quarters (73 percent) of Americans believed it should be legal for doctors to prescribe medical marijuana for their patients. As of May 2011, a similar percentage (69 percent) wanted states to decide whether or not to legalize marijuana for medical use despite federal law prohibiting the use of the drug under any circumstance.

Some Americans seem to make a distinction between using marijuana to reduce pain (often from a serious illness) and using it recreationally. While an April 2013 Pew poll found that a majority of Americans (52 percent) now support the legalization of marijuana for the first time in Pew's 40 year polling history on the topic, there is significantly more support for legalization of the drug for medical use, as the Reason-Rupe and Gallup polls have found.

According to the Pew poll, attitudes about the morality of marijuana use are shifting and as of the April 2013 poll, only 32% of Americans believe that using the drug is morally wrong (compared to 50% in 2006), while 50% feel it is not a moral issue and 12% believe it is morally acceptable (compared to 35% and 10% respectively just seven years earlier).

The public also appears to differentiate between using marijuana for one's own purposes and growing and/or selling it. When asked in the January 2013 Reason-Rupe poll whether the federal government should arrest people who use, grow, or sell marijuana in states which have legalized it, a majority responded "no" in each case though there were slight differences (72 percent, 68 percent, and 64 percent respectively).

Although a vast majority of Americans oppose the federal government arresting individuals who either use, grow, or sell marijuana in the states that have legalized it, only 52 percent say they would favor legislation constraining the federal government from prosecuting people who grow, possess, or sell marijuana in the states that have legalized it.

More broadly, Americans' attitudes about the government's role in regulating the drug trade could factor into their voting behavior as well. A vast majority (80 percent) of citizens believe that the "War on Drugs" has been a failure, according to the September 2012 Reason-Rupe poll, and 32% think that the federal government should spend less money on the war. With fiscal irresponsibility as a hot-button issue, the billions of dollars spent trying to eradicate drug use in this country may become an even bigger factor as Americans get ready to cast their ballots in 2016.