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    What America Thinks
    A Public Paradox on the Drug War

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, March 23, 1998

    Americans believe we're losing the war on drugs but aren't ready to abandon the fight and remain willing to spend even more money to control the use of illicit drugs, according to a major new analysis of public attitudes published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

    Those conclusions emerged from a detailed analysis of 47 national surveys conducted between 1978 and 1997 by major academic, commercial and media polling organizations. This review, conducted by Robert Blendon and John Young of the Harvard University School of Public Health, marks the first attempt by researchers to collect and synthesize all available polling data on attitudes toward illicit drugs.

    Some of their findings are predictable; others revelatory. Their review confirms that Americans consistently see illicit drugs as a serious national problem. Nine in 10 say the illegal drug problem is "not in control." More than half of the public believe the drug problem is getting worse, while not even one in six "believe the country is making progress in this area," they write.

    Curiously, however, they found that drugs have rarely topped the public's list of the country's most important problems, ranging from the second most frequently mentioned problem in Gallup surveys conducted in 1990 to 12th out of 15 listed problems in 1979. (Blendon and Young caution that the list is confounded by crime, which has ranked among the public's top five concerns every year since 1979. "Today, a majority perceives these two issues as linked: they believe that illicit drugs are one of the most important causes of crime," suggesting that the public may not see these two problems that differently.)

    They also found that concern about crime hasn't corresponded to national drug use trends. When drug use was the highest in the late 1970s, national concern as measured in the polls was the lowest. And when usage dipped in the late 1980s, concern skyrocketed.

    "This year-to-year variation appears to be related to two factors," Blendon and Young write. "The first is that other major issues, such as health care, the economy, the federal deficit, or education, emerge on the national agenda and compete for the public's attention."

    The second explanation is less predictable. They argue that what people see in the media and not what they see in their own lives affects how they view the relative severity of the drug problem.

    Surveys consistently show, they note, that Americans say they have "relatively little" direct personal experience with problems associated with drug use. "In fact, 81 percent of Americans say drug abuse has never been a cause of problems in their own family."

    The overwhelming majority report "getting most of their information about the seriousness of the illicit drug problem from the news media, mainly television." They argue that the most recent peak in public concern, which occurred in the late 1980s, came as the result of the death of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias in 1986, which was followed by "a period when the news media paid more attention to crack cocaine use and its health and criminal consequences," Blendon and Young write.

    Here's what worries most Americans about drugs: the crime associated with drug use, the physical effects of illicit drugs, and the corrosive impact of drug use on the character and morals of the country.

    These researchers cite surveys showing that seven in 10 adults say they're worried that they or a family member will be the victim of a crime committed by a drug user. Four in 10 report they have taken security precautions, such as putting bars on their windows or not venturing out at night, "because of the perceived threat of drug-related crime."

    Drugs also are a moral issue for Americans. The public, they write, "thinks of [drug use] as a phenomenon that negatively affects the character and values of the country." They note that three in four Americans say drug use has changed the "national character," while half "believe it represents a fundamental breakdown in the country's morals." Two out of three believe that the recreational use of marijuana, a drug viewed by the public as less harmful than other drugs, is "morally wrong." Half go even further, believing that marijuana use "is morally wrong and should not be tolerated."

    Their review disclosed a curious "paradox" in public attitudes toward national efforts to control illicit drugs. Even after years of increased spending on the drug war, a majority of the public don't see the problem getting better; in fact, 78 percent "see the War on Drugs as having failed thus far," they report.

    At the same time, Americans are more likely, not less, to say the country should spend even more to battle drug use. In fact, they write, large majorities of Americans consistently say the country doesn't spend enough on the drug problem – and about two in three say they would be willing to pay more taxes to combat drugs.

    But on what would Americans spend additional money in the war on drugs? Surveys suggest greatest support for punitive measures. "The option that the largest share of the public say they strongly support is more severe penalties for the possession and sale of drugs," Blendon and Young write. The public also would put more money into anti-drug education in the schools, followed by more funding for the police.

    There's scant public support for legalizing drugs, particularly hard drugs such as cocaine or heroin. Only about one in seven Americans favors legalizing of all illicit drugs – and three in four say they would still be against legalizing heroin and cocaine "even if they believed it would lead to less crime."

    Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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