Poll: New Hampshire Primary Voters Strongly Support Decriminalizing Drug Possession, Treating Drugs as a Health Issue

Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at the New Hampshire Forum on Addiction and the Heroin
Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at the New Hampshire Forum on Addiction and the Heroin Epidemic at Southern New Hampshire University, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

A new poll finds that New Hampshire voters support treating drug use as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue - this includes decriminalizing drug use and possession, eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing, and making naloxone (the antidote to opiate overdoses) more widely available.

Presidential candidates in both parties are speaking in a new, reform-oriented tone when they talk about drugs, addiction and crime. Our country may finally be ready for an exit strategy from the failed war on drugs.

Voters don't just want more of a health-focused approach to drugs and drug use - they also want to significantly reduce the role of criminalization in drug policy.

Sixty-six percent - including half of all Republicans and 68 percent of Independents - think people caught with a small amount of illegal drugs for personal use should be evaluated for drug issues and offered treatment, but not be arrested or face any jail time. And 73 percent of New Hampshire primary voters - including 57 percent of Republicans and 76 percent of Independents - support eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

Thirty-seven percent of New Hampshire primary voters say that they or someone they know has been affected by prescription drug abuse, heroin abuse or overdose. New Hampshire is among the five states with the highest rate of death due to drug overdose. Nationally, more Americans now die annually from overdose than gunshot wounds or car crashes. Nearly 47,000 Americans died from a drug overdose in 2014, the latest year data is available.

Eighty percent of New Hampshire primary voters consider addressing prescription drug and other drug abuse and the recent surge in overdose deaths an important or urgent issue. Forty-one percent would be more likely to support a candidate for president who promised federal support for drug overdose prevention. Both President Obama and leading congressional Republicans have said they want to pass overdose legislation this year.

This is similar to what happened recently with syringe access programs. An increase in injection drug use among rural and suburban populations sparked an uproar in many red states, leading even conservative states like Indiana and Kentucky to implement programs making sterile syringes widely available to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and other infectious diseases. The Republican Congress was forced last year to repeal the decades-long ban on federal funding of syringe access programs.

National polls show that more than three-fourths of Americans believe the war on drugs has failed. In 2014 Californians voted overwhelmingly for Proposition 47, a ballot measure reducing penalties for several nonviolent offenses that included a substantial reduction in penalties for drug possession. Voters in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and the District of Columbia have outright legalized marijuana. Overhauling federal sentencing laws is virtually the only thing that Congress and President Obama agree on, and bipartisan reform could pass this year.

Support for ending the criminalization of drug use and possession is gaining traction. More than 1.5 million drug arrests are made every year in the U.S. - the overwhelming majority for possession only. High-profile endorsers of not arresting, let alone jailing, people for possessing small amounts of any drug include the American Public Health Association, the World Health Organization, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, the Organization of American States, the National Latino Congreso, the NAACP, the International Red Cross, and Human Rights Watch.

Last year government officials and community leaders from over 30 city, county and state jurisdictions gathered at the White House to discuss Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD. Pioneered in Seattle, LEAD allows police to divert individuals who commit low-level drug offenses to harm reduction based case management services instead of jail. An independent evaluation found LEAD reduces the likelihood of reoffending by nearly 60 percent compared to a control group that went through the criminal justice system "as usual." Santa Fe, New Mexico began implementing LEAD in 2014 and Albany, New York began last year.

Voters want change and smart policymakers are delivering. The old days when candidates for public office could demonize people who use drugs and score political points calling for harsh policies are fading. Millions of Americans have struggled with drugs or know someone who has. Millions more see the devastating consequences of a criminal justice approach to drugs - mass incarceration, racial injustice, wasted tax dollars.

Smart candidates who have a real plan for reducing the problems associated with both drugs and the failed war on drugs are sure to benefit politically.

Bill Piper is senior director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. Follow him on Twitter @billjpiper.