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Report suggests US ready to end war on drugs

Pew Research survey shows dramatic shifts in public perception of drugs, but some question whether policies will change

Views on drugs and drug policy in the United States have shifted significantly in the last few years, as Americans become more amicable to the idea of lenient punishment for drug users than ever before, according to a new survey.

The poll, Pew Research Center’s first comprehensive look at drug policy since 2001, suggests that Americans are not only supportive of less harsh laws for marijuana, but also for hard drugs like cocaine and heroin.  

Drug reform advocates say the survey shows the public has had a harsh reaction to the expensive and largely ineffective policies of the war on drugs. But they also say the survey only tells half the story: while public perception may have shifted, many policies that people seem to disagree with remain in place, with few signs from politicians that they are willing to reverse course anytime soon.

“The public is definitely pretty far ahead of politicians,” said Jag Davies of the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that promotes alternatives to current drug policy. “Elected officials have been so scared for so long, but they’re starting to realize it’s to their benefit to reevaluate [their policies].”

The survey, conducted in February and released on Wednesday, finds that 67 percent of Americans think the government should focus less on punishment and more on treatment for drug users, including users of heroin and cocaine.

It also notes that people are supportive of abolishing mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences. In 2001, about half of those polled favored mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, but Pew’s most recent survey found that 63 percent of people thought states moving away from the minimums was a “good thing.”

Pew also finds that by overwhelming majorities, people think alcohol is more harmful to individual and societal health than marijuana. And perhaps most tellingly for the immediate future of drug policy in America, 75 percent of respondents say that regardless of their views on marijuana, they believe that full legalization is inevitable.

Drug policy watchers say the trends highlighted by the survey aren’t particularly surprising – perceptions of drug use have been shifting in a more lenient direction for years. But they say the sheer size of the shift shows how ready Americans are to move beyond the era of the war on drugs.

“The U.S. has pushed the war to such an extreme level – in terms of budget and incarceration rates – that U.S. politicians are seeing the country’s population push back,” said John Collins, a coordinator with LSE IDEAS International Drug Policy Project.

But Collins and others say that while the public has reacted negatively to years of increased enforcement, record-breaking incarceration rates, and beefy budgets for police departments, policy hasn’t followed the same course.

“Budgets haven’t changed much,” said Collins. “You’re still seeing far too much money going to law enforcement instead of treatment and prevention. I think legislators are actually trying to catch up.”

There are signs that policy may eventually align more closely with the public’s perception. Last month, Attorney General Eric Holder backed a proposal to lower the guideline penalties prosecutors use in low-level drug cases, a move the Justice Department said would reduce the average prison time for drug offenses by 11 months. There’s also an effort in Congress to give federal judges more say in how low-level drug crimes are prosecuted, which could lessen the use of mandatory minimums.

Drug reform supporters applaud these moves but say more can be done. And they say the Pew poll makes clear that the public has moved on, and politicians now safely can too.

“It’s harder and harder to find a politician that can claim they’ve been drug free – even Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have confessed their drug use,” said Sanho Tree at the Institute for Policy Studies. “That war on drugs generation is receding into the rearview of American politics.”

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