Public opinion on drugs and drug policy
Public opinion is shaped by a number of competing factors, and is in constant flux making its measurement problematic. However, knowing what the ‘general public’ think about drugs and drug policy has important implications particularly for policy makers trying to appeal to certain key audiences, and reformers seeking to demonstrate public opinion on drug law reform shifting in a positive direction in response to informed debate (as it appears to be).
It is perhaps surprising to note, that considering the vast amount of taxpayer's money that goes into ‘tackling drugs’ there is comparatively little official research into public opinion on the issue, with most of our understanding coming form a range of independent opinion polling.
It is important to be cautious when reading and interpreting poll statistics. Always consider the following points (plundered – and edited - from the useful wiki entry on opinion polls http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opinion_poll )
All polls based on samples are subject to sampling error which reflects the effects of chance in the sampling process. The uncertainty is often expressed as a margin of error . The margin of error does not reflect other sources of error, such as measurement error. A poll with a random sample of 1,000 people has margin of sampling error of 3% for the estimated percentage of the whole population. A 3% margin of error means that 95% of the time the procedure used would give an estimate within 3% of the percentage to be estimated. The margin of error can be reduced by using a larger sample, however if a pollster wishes to reduce the margin of error to 1% they would need a sample of around 10,000 people. In practice pollsters need to balance the cost of a large sample against the reduction in sampling error and a sample size of around 500-1,000 is a typical compromise for political polls. Less than this should cause some warning bells to ring.
Since some people do not answer calls from strangers, or refuse to answer the poll, poll samples may not be representative samples from a population. Because of this selection bias , the characteristics of those who agree to be interviewed may be markedly different from those who decline. That is, the actual sample is a biased version of the universe the pollster wants to analyze. In these cases, bias introduces new errors, one way or the other, that are in addition to errors caused by sample size. Error due to bias does not become smaller with larger sample sizes. If the people who refuse to answer, or are never reached, have the same characteristics as the people who do answer, the final results will be unbiased. If the people who do not answer have different opinions then there is bias in the results. Questionnaires about drug use are particularly prone to non-response bias because people are understandably wary or admitting to involvement in illegal activity, why for example the British crime Survey is generally seen to underestimate prevalence of use. Questions on drug policy views cause less problems.
Survey results may be affected by response bias, where the answers given by respondents do not reflect their true beliefs. This may be deliberately engineered by unscrupulous pollsters, but more often is a result of the detailed wording or ordering of questions (see below). Respondents may deliberately try to manipulate the outcome of a poll by e.g. advocating a more extreme position than they actually hold in order to boost their side of the argument or give rapid and ill-considered answers in order to hasten the end of their questioning. Respondents may also feel under social pressure not to give an unpopular answer. It is easy to see how such factors could influence responses on a contentious and often emotive policy areas like drugs.
Wording of questions
It is well established that the wording of the questions, the order in which they are asked and the number and form of alternative answers offered can influence results of polls often quite dramatically. Thus comparisons between polls often boil down to the wording of the question. On some issues, question wording can result in quite pronounced differences between surveys. (In drugs questionnaires this might, for example, involve the use of non-neutral terms about drugs or drug users). This can also, however, be a result of legitimately conflicted feelings or evolving attitudes, both common in drug policy opinion, rather than a poorly constructed survey. One way in which pollsters attempt to minimize this effect is to ask the same set of questions over time, in order to at east accurately track changes in opinion. Another common technique is to rotate the order in which questions are asked.
Russell Newcombe has written about many of these potential wording problems and proposed a series of questions for drug policy opinion questionnaires, which you can read here.
Another source of error is the use of samples that are not representative of the population as a consequence of the methodology used. For example, telephone or internet based sampling has a built-in error because in many times and places, those with telephones/internet have generally been richer than those without. Polling organisations have developed many weighting techniques to help overcome these deficiencies, to varying degrees of success.
Bear in mind that one off polls only provide a snapshot in time of constantly shifting public opinion. It is always more useful to have polls that are conducted regularly using consistent methodologies that will enable trends in public opinion to be observed.
Academic surveys / polls that are subject to peer review and published in journals are the highest standard, followed by independent research organisations, with media polls or political party/single issue pressure group polls requiring the closest scrutiny. Reputable polling organisations have fairly strict criteria and should filter out the worst causes of bias, even if the work is being done for a questionable outlet, but this is not always the case.
Always look to see if the questionnaire methodology is published or made publicly available in some form, and be suspicious when it is not. Also see if the complete raw survey data is being made available, and if you have the time, check it out directly rather than relying on headlines or press releases. Data is notoriously easy to cherry pick or spin to support a particular agenda or position. Often the raw data will conceal all sorts of interesting facts that the headlines have missed.
You should also look at all the polls on any given question to see the balance of outcomes, and trends over time, rather than alighting on a single one that fits a preconceived view or supports up a particular position – another form of cherry picking. Doing a more inclusive meta analysis should help smooth out 'blips' in the data and give a more accurate overall picture of reality.
Summary of research up to 2004
In Transform's opinion the best piece of research into public opinion on drugs, specifically drug policy reform, is Russell Newcombe’s ‘Attitudes to Drug Policy and Drug Laws: A review of the international evidence’. It is a comprehensive and critical review of almost all the ‘public opinion on drugs’ surveys, domestic and international up to December 2004. It includes a useful summary of many of the concepts and terminology used in the drugs field.
document available here
Over the past decade there has been strong shift in public opinion in favour of drug policy reform. This shift has been most obvious regarding cannabis (see below). This reflects the considerable length of time that the cannabis legalisation debate has been in the mainstream. It should also be noted that this shift has taken place despite successive government’s reluctance to consider or debate the subject, or even call to
Notes: this graph compares the poll results commissioned by different organisations because there is no centralised year on year data collected. It is compiled by Dr Russell Newcombe as a supplement to his major work on the topic ‘Attitudes to Drug Policy and the Drug Laws, A Review of the International Evidence’.
The report of the RSA Commission on Illegal Drugs, Communities and Public Policy 2007 includes interviews of 3000 adults across Britain (online) to find out ‘what people really think about drugs’. They found that ‘most people are, by and large, pretty realistic and practical in their attitudes towards drugs.’ Read the full report, including the detailed poll findings (p329-225).
In a 2006 combined RSA - Telegraph YouGov poll roughly three quarters of those surveyed wanted ‘hard drugs’ law to remain the same, whilst just over 50% of those surveyed wanted some relaxation of the ‘soft drug’ laws. The hard/soft drug distinction is a difficult one to quantify, non-specific, unscientific and not especially useful.
An ICM poll of 1008 UK adults (aged 16+) for The Guardian in 2008 found that 38% would support a scheme, similar to that established in Portugal and Spain, whereby it is not a criminal offence to possess and use drugs privately, but dealing remains illegal.
46 per cent of UK adults in a 2002 Guardian poll (of 1075) felt that drug addicts who register themselves as such should have access to certain illegal drugs via prescription.
An ICM poll of 1201 people for The Guardian, 1998 , found that 47% believed that the illegality of drugs actually encourages young people to try them.
A crime survey of 1006 adults by ICM for The Mirror, 2002 , found that 75% believed that drugs were to blame for the ‘rise in crime’ (it is clear
A poll conducted on behalf of Smart Justice, 2005/06 looking into the views of 991 adult victims of crime found that a quarter believed legalising drugs would reduce the criminal behaviour of addicts. Half thought that drug treatment under supervision in the community would reduce their criminal behaviour, a third said ‘send them to prison’, and a quarter said that making hard drugs available on prescription would have a beneficial effect.
BBC Wales – Dragon’s Eye : When asked which crimes associated with young people concerned them most, 44% (of 1000 adults in Wales) said drug taking. This put drugs at the top of the list of concerns. However only 1% said they had been a victim of this crime in the past 12 months… this put that crime at the bottom of the actual crimes experienced list. Interestingly, having one’s car stolen/broken into was at the bottom of the feared list, but top of the crimes experienced list!
The (2004) Daily Mirror’s ICM poll of 1036 adults found that 61% wanted drug supply to be regulated by the government.
There is comparatively little published research on public opinion in much of the world, with the Western world having the highest number of polls. Cannabis takes centre stage in most of the polls available; largely due to its combined popularity and contentious illegality.
Russell Newcombe’s report reviews evidence from polls and research in four parts of the world: America (mainly USA and Canada), Oceania (Australia and New Zealand), Asia (Iran and Japan), and Europe (notably northern and western European countries). He demonstrates that in Canada, Australia, and most EEC countries attitudes to drug use have become more progressive, whereas attitudes have recently hardened eles, notably Nordic countries and the USA.
According to a 2006 Eurobarometer poll conducted by the European Commission about one quarter of adults in Europe believe marijuana should be legal for personal use. 29,000 European Union residents were surveyed (around 1000 from each country).
According to this 1997 report by the Department of Psychiatry, University of Mainz , the medical use of psychotropic drugs was not well accepted amongst those polled, this went hand-in-hand with the low level of knowledge they demonstrated on the subject.
There have been several referenda on drug policy issues, of note the 1997 referenda calling for a strict, abstinence-oriented drug policy and the closing down of the heroin prescription clinics. 71% of voters rejected it, and implicitly gave their support to the government’s 4-pillar harm reduction approach.
Another nationwide referenda is set to take place within the next two years to decide upon the fate of cannabis laws.
This article (2005) by stopthedrugwar.org lists a few poll results in the debate on cannabis legalisation: ‘In one poll, the newspaper Trouw interviewed the mayor's of Holland's 30 largest cities, and found that two-thirds supported legalization. And in a sounding of public opinion, Dutch pollster Maurice de Hond found that 49% supported legalization, 15% wanted the current policy of tolerance to continue, while only 33% wanted a more restrictive policy. ’
'Public Opinion Poll on Attitudes towards Prison'
by the Irish Penal Reform Trust (2007) reveals significant opinions on how to deal with drug using offenders:
This is a 2001 report published by The Fraser Institute on the growing support for cannabis decriminalisation. They suggest a majority are now in support of it.
The Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics has an extensive database of attitude surveys towards drugs , including availability, disapproval, legalisation of marijuana, level of spending on drug addiction, perceptions of the harmfulness of drug and alcohol use, and progress coping with the drug problem.
Medical marijuana has vast support (98%) according to polls listed by procon.org
A recent Pfizer report (2007) interviewed 1349 Australians, of which 75% felt cannabis use was either dangerous or very dangerous. Other opinions were equally inaccurate, leaving the spokesman for the National Drug and Alcohol Centre, Paul Dillon, to comment ‘ The report's only bad news was that many beliefs people had about cannabis -- like the fact it leads to harder drug use -- were actually incorrect ’
In 2006 a petition of nearly 3000 people was handed to parliament asking for the law be changed so that cannabis can be used in the treatment of some medical conditions.
A number of opinion polls from across the (mainly) Western world, and mostly cannabis related, are listed here - http://www.ccguide.org.uk/opinions.php