March 21, 2001

Interdiction and Incarceration Still Top Remedies

More Important Findings

Split Over Mandatory Sentences

Clearly, the public is conflicted on many aspects of the drug war. While most think of drug use as a disease, there is relatively little support for drug treatment programs; just over a third think drug treatment would be a very effective means of reducing drug addiction.

These divisions carry over to how the public wants its criminal justice system to function with respect to drugs. Just as many Americans agree (47%) as disagree (47%) with the idea that too many people are put in jail just for possessing drugs. And Americans are evenly divided over whether moving away from mandatory sentencing for drug offenses is a good (47%) or a bad (45%) thing.

Interestingly, women are significantly more punitive when it comes to drug sentencing than are men. Women are less likely to say that too many people are in jail for drugs than men (40% to 53%), and more likely to say that moving away from mandatory sentencing is a bad idea (50% to 40%). This gap exists despite the fact that women are about as likely as men to consider drug use to be a disease rather than a crime.

Those who have experienced drug problems in their family are among the most sympathetic to reducing drug sentencing. More than half (54%) of people who have had family members face drug problems say too many are put in jail just for drug possession, compared to 44% of those who have not had drug problems in their families.

There is also a significant partisan divide with respect to drug sentencing. Half of Democrats say there are too many people in jail just for possessing drugs, compared to 38% of Republicans, and Democrats are slightly more favorable toward reducing mandatory sentencing.

And as with their views on whether drug use is a crime or a disease, respondents from different religious traditions divide on how best to deal with drug possession in the justice system. More than six-in-ten evangelical Protestants say it is a bad idea for states to move away from mandatory prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders, while just half as many mainline Protestants agree.

Education plays a major role in attitudes toward mandatory sentencing. While 57% of college graduates think that moving away from mandatory drug sentences is a good thing, support drops among those with some college (49%) or a high-school degree (42%) and is lowest among those who did not finish high school (34%).

There are no significant differences between the races with respect to sentence-related issues. African-American respondents are no more likely than whites to say that too many people are put in jail just for possessing drugs, and blacks’ views on moving away from mandatory prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders are no different from those of whites. But as with whites, black women are more conservative when it comes to the question of punishment than are black men.

All Approaches Lose Favor

The intractability of the drug problem in the public’s mind can be seen in declining faith in standard approaches to fighting the drug war. Although the public continues to favor the anti-drug strategies developed in the 1980s, support for all of these approaches has declined.

Interdiction remains the top drug-fighting strategy, but the percentage rating it as very effective has fallen from 66% in 1988 to 52%. Similarly, there has been a 10-point drop in those who cite the effectiveness of arresting drug dealers in this country.

But while the public is less supportive of these traditional strategies, it is not sold on the alternatives. Just over a third (36%) think a government push to provide drug treatment programs for drug users would be very effective, while slightly fewer say drug education would be very effective. In fact, while confidence in all approaches to fighting drugs has declined, faith in educating about the dangers of drug use has declined particularly sharply. In 1988, more than half felt a government push on drug education would be very effective; today just over a third (35%) agree.

Arresting drug users rates as the least effective approach in the public’s eye. Just 30% think this would be a very effective action in controlling the use of drugs, and 34% say it wouldn’t be effective at all.

More Blacks Favor Education

Though the public thinks highly of both interdiction and arresting dealers, when forced to choose, stopping drugs before they reach this country wins out as the most effective approach. Nearly half (48%) choose interdiction as the single most effective government action in the war on drugs, while just 19% cite arresting drug dealers, 15% say drug education, and 10% say drug treatment. Arresting drug users is cited as the most effective approach to controlling drug use by only 4% of Americans.

These attitudes about approaches to the drug war are fairly consistent across all demographic groups with two exceptions — minorities and younger people — who are more optimistic about the effectiveness of drug education.

Roughly half of African-American respondents rate drug education as a very effective government action in reducing drug use, and 23% rate it as the most effective action the government could take. By comparison, just a third of whites rate education as very effective, and 14% rate it as the most effective approach. Whites, on the other hand, have more faith in the relative effectiveness of arresting drug dealers than do African-Americans. This debate aside, nearly half of both black and white respondents agree that drug interdiction would work better than any other approach.

Younger Americans are also more optimistic about the effectiveness of drug education. Nearly one-in-five (17%) of those under 50 cite educating people about the dangers of using drugs as the most effective action the government could take, compared to just 9% of those 50 and older. Young people are the least convinced of the effectiveness of interdiction. While a plurality (41%) of those under 30 rate stopping importation as the most effective approach to the drug war, this compares to 47% of those 30-49, and 52% of those 50 and older.

Religion also plays a role in how people view the drug war. Evangelical Protestants tend to be less optimistic about drug education programs than mainline Protestants, and evangelicals are more supportive of a government emphasis on interdiction. Seculars are the most likely to believe drug education would be the most effective approach to solving the drug problem.

Doubts About Foreign Anti-Drug Aid

Although the public favors government action to stop drugs from entering the country, it is highly skeptical toward providing financial assistance to drug-producing countries. By nearly four-to-one (42% to 11%) Americans would like to see the U.S. provide less, not more financial assistance to countries like Columbia and Peru, to assist them in stopping drug production.

The public is split over the question of providing military assistance to countries to help them fight drug trafficking. Roughly equal proportions would like to see the U.S. provide more (23%) and less (28%) military assistance to drug-producing countries, with a plurality saying we are providing about the right amount of assistance now.

Medical Marijuana Favored

Legalizing marijuana remains a controversial proposal, with 46% saying they favor removing criminal punishments for the possession of small amounts of marijuana and 49% saying it should remain a criminal offense. Support for removing the penalties for minor possession has remained steady since the 1980s, and is down slightly from the 1970s.

But the public is far less divided when it comes to the question of medical-marijuana. Nearly three-quarters support allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana for medical purposes to treat their patients.

Once again, women tend to be more conservative when it comes to legalization issues. While 53% of men favor the removal of criminal punishments for small amounts of marijuana, just 39% of women agree. Some of this difference can be attributed to the fact that men are far more likely to have tried marijuana than women. Nearly half (46%) of men report having tried marijuana, compared to just 30% of women. In general, those who have tried marijuana are far more supportive of its legalization in small amounts than those who have not (65% to 33%). But even when this difference in exposure is accounted for, men are more likely to favor legalization than women. This gender gap is especially evident among blacks.

Opposition to relaxing drug penalties is strongest among senior citizens, and residents of rural areas. Also, almost two-thirds (65%) of white evangelical Protestants oppose allowing the possession of small amounts of marijuana, while 54% of white mainline Protestants support legalization, along with two-thirds (65%) of seculars.

Two arguments, one for and one against the legalization of marijuana, were tested on the survey, and neither garnered much support from the public. Six-in-ten (59%) disagreed with the argument that legalizing marijuana would make it easier for law enforcement to control more serious drugs, while 36% agreed. Yet half the public disagreed with the anti-legalization argument that legalization would make it harder to control serious drugs.

Parents Seen as Key

Preventing teens from trying illegal drugs starts with friends and family, according to most Americans. Broad societal factors — such as living in poverty, the type of neighborhood a teen lives in or how much education about drugs the teen has — rank low among factors Americans think determine whether a teenager tries illegal drugs. Peer pressure, parental supervision and how easy or difficult it is for the teen to get access to drugs are considered far and away the most important factors in teen drug use.

More than eight-in-ten (82%) think peer pressure is a major factor in whether teens try drugs, and nearly as many (79%) say a lack of parental supervision is important. The ready availability of drugs is also cited by three-quarters (74%) as a major factor. Parents who have children at home are somewhat more conscious of these three factors.

The public’s emphasis on parental supervision is emblematic of the increased willingness of Americans to blame the problems of teens on their parents. In a report by the Center last year, a plurality identified poor parenting as the primary cause for school shootings (see “A Year After Columbine,” April 19, 2000). In the case of drugs, Americans are especially critical of parents who have used drugs themselves. Six-in-ten (59%) say parents who used drugs in their youth don’t do enough to help their kids stay away from drugs. Even a majority (51%) of parents who admit to trying marijuana themselves express this self-critical viewpoint.

Many also feel that a child’s home environment is a significant cause of drug use. Though less important than parental supervision, more than half (52%) think that whether a teen’s parents drink or smoke can be a major factor in whether the teen tries illegal drugs. Just under half (45%) say that the parent’s economic status — whether they live in poverty or not — can be a very important issue in shaping a teen’s behavior.

Again, education about the dangers of drug use is not seen as significant, at least when compared to other factors. While a plurality (44%) say a lack of information about such dangers is a major factor in whether a teen tries drugs, another 35% say is it only a minor factor, with nearly one-in-five saying it doesn’t matter at all. But solid majorities of black (61%) and Hispanic (60%) respondents say teens who lack information about the dangers of drugs are at significantly higher risk, compared to just 41% of white respondents.

There is a broad consensus that where a child is raised plays little role in shaping their behavior regarding drugs. Just one-in-four say whether a teenager is raised in the city, suburbs or country is a major factor in whether they try drugs, and 42% say it isn’t an issue at all. And this view is pretty much the same regardless of the size of the community a respondent lives in.

Republicans and Democrats have somewhat different views about the causes of teen drug use. Republicans are slightly more likely to cite a lack of parental supervision as a very important factor in what a teen does. On the other hand, a majority of Democrats believe living in poverty and a lack of information about the dangers of drugs are very important factors in teenage drug use, while just slightly over a third of Republicans agree.

Blaming Hollywood

While the entertainment industry’s portrayal of drug use is not cited as one of the leading factors in determining whether a teen tries drugs, the public levels harsh criticism at Hollywood. More than two-thirds of Americans (68%) say the television and motion picture industries fail to accurately portray the dangers of drug abuse.

Though majorities of all major demographic groups are dissatisfied with the way drug use is portrayed in the movies and on TV, political conservatives are the most critical. Fully 75% of conservatives say television and movies fail to show the dangers of drug use, compared to fewer than six-in-ten liberals.

Younger respondents are the least critical of the entertainment industry. While a majority (61%) of those under 30 think movies and television fail to adequately portray the dangers of drugs, just 41% list this as a major factor in what teens do. By comparison, seven-in-ten of those 30 and older criticize the industry’s message, and a strong majority feels this has a major effect on whether teens try drugs. Parents are slightly more critical of the way drugs are portrayed by movies and television, but are no more likely to say this affects their kids than non-parents.