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Despite Failings, Public Supports Continuing "Drug War," Says Harvard Study; Public Rejects Legalization, Supports Medical Marijuana


March-April 1998

Most Americans agree that U.S. anti-drug efforts have failed, but support greater resources for these same efforts, according to a study from the Harvard School of Public Health. The study is based on an analysis of 47 national surveys conducted between 1978 and 1997 (Robert J. Blendon, ScD, and John T. Young, MPhil, "The Public and the War on Illicit Drugs," Journal of the American Medical Association, March 18, 1998, vol. 279, no. 11, p. 827, on-line at <> ).

The study, published in the March 18 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that 78% of the public believes anti-drug efforts have failed thus far and 58% do not believe the nation's drug problem has improved after five years of increased anti-drug spending. However, 66% are willing to pay more taxes to continue the same failed efforts. Almost all (94%) of the public believes that the illegal drug problem is not under control, and more than half (58%) believe that the problem is getting worse over time.

The survey found that 68% of Americans rely on mass media, mainly television, for information about drug abuse and drug policy. The majority believe that individuals begin using illegal drugs because of peer pressure, poor parenting, or aggressive expansion of markets by drug dealers. About two-thirds of the public said illegal drug use was morally wrong, while 82% said illicit drug use is a major problem for society.

Among 19 options designed to reduce drug use and drug-related problems, the public favored more severe prison sentences, followed by an increase in anti-drug education in schools and increased funding for law enforcement. Only 19% strongly favor increasing funding for drug treatment.

Only 14% of those surveyed support drug legalization. Fifty-six percent believe that illicit drugs are one of the most important causes of crime and over half said drug-related crime would increase if drugs are legalized. Seventy-six percent of Americans said they would not favor legalizing cocaine and heroin, even if they believed it would lead to less crime. [This last statistic underlines that public support for the "drug war" is more about moral values or fears than rational public safety measures. The bureaucracies and businesses engaged in the "drug war" have been successful in creating support that is independent of failure to achieve objectives and rational analysis and evaluation. -- RCT]

Seventy-four percent of the public does not favor legalizing marijuana for personal use. Sixty-four percent said such marijuana use is morally wrong, and 51% think it is morally wrong and should not be tolerated. Though marijuana is perceived as having about the same risks as alcohol and tobacco, 63% of parents and 76% of teenagers said that marijuana leads to use of more dangerous drugs.

A slight majority supports needle exchange programs, but only when they are informed of the American Medical Association's support of these programs. Roughly 60% of the public supports allowing doctors to prescribe medical marijuana for patients with serious or terminal illnesses.

The report cites about 11,000 deaths due to illicit drugs annually in the U.S. In 1991, all government spending on anti-drug measures amounted to $27 billion. Currently, there are over half a million drug-related hospital emergency room episodes, and about 900,000 people receiving drug treatment.

The report concluded: "... physicians and public health professionals remain trusted and are likely to be seen as an important source of information about drug policies, particularly in the areas of preventive education and treatment." The authors added, "To gain public support, a proposal for major change [in drug policy] must address 4 dimensions of public concern: the impact on crime, the national character, morals, and health. ... If health professionals want to change the direction of American's beliefs on particular drug policies they will have to devote significant resources to gaining media attention for their views."

Harvard School of Public Health - 116 Huntington Ave., 9th Floor, Boston, MA 02116, Tel: (617) 351-0150, Fax: (617) 351-0106, Web: <http:/>.

Public Support for Various Drug Abuse Policies

Strongly Favoring Policy, % Total Favoring Policy, %
More severe criminal penalties 49 84
Anti-drug education in school 45 93
Increase funding for police 37 87
Increase job training for at-risk youth 32 83
Antidrug education in communities 31 86
U.S. military in U.S. cities along the border 30 73
Increasing mandatory drug testing at work 27 71
Surprise searches of school lockers 25 67
U.S. military advisers in foreign countries 22 64
Death penalty for smugglers 22 50
Increased funding for treatment 19 77
Mandatory drug testing of high school students 19 54
U.S. military in other countries to arrest drug traffickers 16 50
U.S. aid to farmers in foreign countries not to grow drug crops 15 48
Aid to foreign governments to fight drug traffickers 11 14
Legalize all drugs 5 14

Data from Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll. Storrs, Conn: Roper Center for Public Opinion Research; September 1995.