Americans, weary of war on drugs, prefer rehab to jail, poll says

In a significant shift, a new poll finds that two-thirds of Americans favor drug policies that emphasize treatment, not prison sentences, for those who use illegal drugs such as heroin or cocaine.

Americans are tired of a war on drugs.

That’s the conclusion of a new Pew Research Center poll finding that two-thirds of Americans prefer drug policies that emphasize rehabilitation, not jail time, for those who use illegal drugs such as heroin or cocaine. Most Americans also support proposals to scrap minimum sentencing laws for nonviolent drug offenses.

The poll is Pew’s first broad look at US opinions on drug policies since 2001, and its results, released Wednesday, signal a seismic shift in American attitudes toward drug laws and addiction.

It also comes as Congress, facing a belt-bursting prison budget as well as mounting evidence that tough prison sentences are not fixing but fueling a national drug problem, is weighing a major recalibration of the US war on drugs. A bill that would cut minimum sentences for a number of nonviolent drug offenses.

The poll found that Americans are no less worried about drug use than in years past – 32 percent of respondents called drug abuse “a crisis” in the US, and more than half called it a “serious problem” – but that attitudes about how to respond have shifted.

Some 67 percent of those questioned said that the government should focus on treatment for illegal drug users, not on punishment; while 26 percent said that the government should focus on prosecution.

About 63 percent of poll-takers said that recent state proposals to set aside minimum sentences for drug crimes are a “good thing." By contrast, 47 percent Americans in 2001 wanted to do away with such minimums versus 45 percent who didn't, according to Pew.

Only Congress has the power to change mandatory minimum sentences, and the Smarter Sentencing Act – put on the Senate calendar in March – would, if passed, reduce many federal mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, as well as make new, lighter sentences for crack-cocaine cases retroactive.

Even ahead of action on the Smarter Sentencing Act, government officials and lawmakers have been pushing hard for reforms to drug crime sentencing, an issue that has culled considerable bipartisan support for its potential to de-bloat an out-sized prison budget.

For the fiscal year 2014, the Obama administration requested $8.5 billion for the federal prison budget, an increase of $236 million from fiscal year 2012 that would allow the Bureau of Prisons “to keep pace with the increased number of inmates.” About half of some 216,000 inmates in US federal prisons are doing time for drug-related crimes.

Last month, Attorney General Eric Holder endorsed the US Sentencing Commission’s proposal to adjust downward its recommended sentences for federal nonviolent drug crimes. Long sentences for low-level drug crimes “come with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate," he said in a speech to the American Bar Association.

The measure, expected to apply to almost 70 percent of defendants convicted of federal drug offenses, would reduce the average prison sentence for a defendant by about 11 months and cut about 6,550 inmates from the prison system over five years, according to the Department of Justice.

The commission is not expected to vote on the proposal until late April, but Mr. Holder has asked prosecutors not to object if, in the meantime, defense counsels propose sentences along the lines of the prospective guidelines.

The Pew report also found that more than 60 percent of Americans believe that alcohol is a more significant danger to health or to society than is marijuana. Less than a quarter of respondents called marijuana the bigger danger, while 1 in 10 said that both were equally destructive.

About 44 percent of respondents said they backed legalization of marijuana for medical use, and just under 40 percent said they supported legalization for recreational use. About 54 percent of poll takers favor legalization in general and around 42 percent are opposed. In a poll four years ago, those numbers were essentially reversed, Pew said.

A full three-quarters of respondents also said they believe that the legalization of marijuana is inevitable, regardless of their personal beliefs on the subject. 

The Pew poll, conducted from Feb. 14-23, is based on telephone interviews conducted among a national sample of 1,821 adults, 18 years of age or older. The survey's overall sampling error is plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.

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