More than 40 years ago, the federal government launched a war on drugs. Over the past decade, the nation has spent hundreds of billions of dollars fighting that war, a figure that does not even include the high costs of prosecuting and jailing drug law offenders. It’s hard to put a price on that aspect of the drug war since half of all inmates in federal prison today were busted for drugs.
Despite the enormous expense and growth of the prison population, only 7 percent of American adults now think the United States is winning the War on Drugs. Eighty-two percent disagree. The latest statistics on drug usage support that conclusion.
Earlier this month, voters in Colorado and Washington sent the clearest signal yet that the nation is looking for a new approach to deal with the issue of drug abuse. They voted to legalize the use of marijuana in their states. Those decisions fly in the face of federal law and set the states on a collision course with the federal government.
But six out of 10 Americans believe the federal government should get out of the way and let individual states decide how they want to address the issue within their own borders. Only 27 percent think the federal government should establish national rules.
Underlying the public desire for a new approach is pragmatism. Nationally, 51 percent of Americans believe that alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana. Only 24 percent see pot as the more dangerous drug.
But that doesn’t mean Americans simply want to legalize what you can buy on the street, eliminate the penalties and pretend there is no risk. The data confirms the innate sense of pragmatism driving public opinion. When we ask Americans simply whether they favor legalization of marijuana, 45 percent say yes and 45 percent say no.
But when we ask about legalizing and regulating marijuana in a similar manner to the way alcohol and cigarettes are regulated, support for legalization increases to 56 percent. Only 36 percent remain opposed.
Most support regulations that would make it illegal for those under 18 to purchase pot, insure that those who drive under the influence would receive strict penalties and favor a ban on smoking marijuana in public places.
Fifty-eight percent support a requirement that marijuana could be purchased only in pharmacies. A plurality thinks that would cut the income of those who continue to sell drugs illegally.
However, the most persuasive case for pragmatism in exploring new strategies for the War on Drugs can be found when the topic shifts from marijuana to cocaine. First, only 11 percent support the legalization of cocaine. They recognize a big difference between pot and cocaine. If nothing else, people will want to see how the legalization of marijuana will work out before going any further.
Yet, if voters knew for a fact that legalizing marijuana and cocaine would reduce drug violence along the Mexican border, 47 percent would even be open to legalizing and regulating cocaine. Just to be clear, voters are not at all ready to take that step today. Not even close.
But most are ready to legalize and regulate marijuana. They’d like to see the states experiment with a variety of approaches and monitor the results before deciding upon the next step. That’s pragmatism. And that’s the way people will evaluate the new approach to the War on Drugs.