The drug war has cost the U.S. government about a trillion dollars over the last four decades, while leading to the imprisonment of millions of people for nonviolent drug offenses, helping make America’s incarceration rate the highest in the world.
But public policy is slowly shifting toward a less punitive approach to people who use illegal drugs, and a new survey suggests most Americans approve.
Just a quarter of Americans think the government should focus more on prosecuting users of hard drugs like heroin and cocaine, according to a national survey by the Pew Research Center released Wednesday. By contrast, 67 percent of those surveyed said the government should focus on providing treatment to drug users.
Americans also seem to back the efforts of states around the country to lighten penalties for drug possession and low-level dealing. Nearly two out of every three respondents said it was a “good thing” that some states have reduced mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenders in recent years.
Considering that libertarian-leaning conservatives like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and anti-tax activist Grover Norquist have emerged as some of the most outspoken critics of the traditional tough-on-crime response to drug use, it’s perhaps unsurprising that more than half of Republicans said they favored treatment over prosecution. Sixty-nine percent of Democrats and 77 percent of independents agreed.
And with Colorado and Washington allowing people to buy and sell pot, support for the legalization of marijuana continues to grow. Fifty-four percent of respondents said marijuana should be legal, versus 41 percent in 2009 and just 16 percent in 1989.
The Pew survey isn’t the first to suggest that Americans are souring on the drug war. A HuffPost/YouGov poll conducted last year found that just 19 percent of Americans think that the billions used to fight drug crimes have been well spent.
Another HuffPost/YouGov poll, published in December, revealed that a minority of respondents said that first-time drug offenders should be sentenced to jail.
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