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.
-- As recently as four years ago, about half (52%) of Americans 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.
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 criminal justice system. And in an otherwise-bitterly-divided Congress, legislators from both sides of the aisle are pushing to reform mandatory minimum drug laws.
Yet 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.
It's nice to see, as the Pew poll indicated, that Americans overwhelmingly support treatment-instead-of-
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 is the U.S. still arresting more than a million people every year for nothing more than drug possession?
There is simply no good basis in science, health or ethics for bringing someone into the criminal justice system solely for drug possession. Getting arrested for drug possession is no small matter. It creates a permanent criminal record, easily available to banks, schools, employers, landlords, and licensing and other government agencies, that can haunt a person for life. That this happens to more than a million Americans every year is absurd.
Hopefully these new poll results will help accelerate the movement toward ending the criminalization of drug use and possession. That certainly would make an enormous difference in millions of lives.
Jag Davies is publications manager at the Drug Policy Alliance.
This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog.