A new national survey released today by the Pew Research Center reveals that a broad majority of Americans are ready to significantly reduce the role of the criminal justice system in dealing with people who use drugs.
Among the key findings of the report:
- More than six in ten Americans (63%) say that state governments moving away from mandatory prison terms for drug law violations is a good thing, while just 32% say these policy changes are a bad thing. This is a substantial shift from 2001 when the public was evenly divided (47% good thing vs. 45% bad thing). The majority of all demographic groups, including Republicans and Americans over 65 years old, support this shift.
- At the same time, there has been a major shift in attitudes on whether the use of marijuana should be legal. As recently as four years ago, about half (52%) said they thought the use of marijuana should not be legal; 41% said marijuana use should be legal. Today those numbers are roughly reversed - 54% favor marijuana legalization while 42% are opposed. Just 16% say it should not be legal for either medical or recreational use.
- Two-thirds (67%) say the government should focus more on providing treatment for people who use drugs like cocaine and heroin. Just 26% think the focus should be more on prosecuting people who use such drugs.
"There's a new consensus that mandatory minimums are no longer appropriate for drug and other nonviolent offenders," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "This is reflected and confirmed by the growing bipartisan support for rolling back and ending such laws."
"It's good to see yet another poll confirm the results of other state and national polls showing majority support for legalizing marijuana," continued Nadelmann. "And it's nice to see that Americans overwhelmingly support treatment-instead-of-incarceration. But it's important to recognize that there has been overwhelming support for treatment-instead-of-incarceration for well over a decade now - and that we've reached the point where the public needs to be better educated about the benefits of providing treatment outside the criminal justice system rather than within and through it. It would be a shame if this latest poll result were used to promote drug courts and other coercive, abstinence-only programs rather than meaningful treatment in the community."
"Given that the vast majority of Americans don't think people should be prosecuted for drug possession, it's time to ask the question: Why are we still arresting people for nothing more than drug possession?" added Nadelmann.
The report comes at a pivotal moment. From liberal stalwarts to Tea Party favorites, there's now a bipartisan consensus that our country incarcerates too many people, for too much time, at too much expense to taxpayers.
President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have made a series of moves over the past year indicating that they are serious about reducing mass incarceration and fixing the crimi¬nal justice system. And in an otherwise-bitterly-divided Congress, legislators from both sides of the aisle are pushing to reform mandatory minimum drug laws. The reforms are supported by a group of Senators who can only be described as strange bedfellows: Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), Carl Levin (D-Michigan) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island).
Despite major shifts in public opinion, the drug war remains entrenched in a complex web of state, local and federal policies.
More than 1.5 million people are arrested in the U.S. every year for a drug law violation. The vast majority - more than 80 percent - are arrested for possession only. Roughly 500,000 Americans are behind bars on any given night for a drug law violation, including more than 55,000 people in state prisons for simple drug possession.