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Attitudes soften towards cannabis but harden against heroin and crack

Anthony King, The Daily Telegraph, 14th August 2006

Realism and pragmatism figure prominently in the majority of people's attitudes to illegal drugs, says YouGov's survey for The Daily Telegraph and the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts.

People deplore the use of drugs, especially hard drugs, but they realise that drugs are here to stay. Almost everyone believes that the idea of a drugs-free Britain is fantasy.

They evidently make a sharp distinction between hard drugs, such as heroin and crack, and soft drugs, such as cannabis. Three quarters of people think that the sale and possession of hard drugs should remain serious criminal offences. Only a third think the same of soft drugs.

Far more people think that alcohol and tobacco cause the greatest amount of harm to the largest number of people than think the same of drugs. A considerable majority believes that alcohol and tobacco should be classified with drugs in terms of the harm they cause.

There is also a widespread disposition to regard drug-users as people potentially in need of treatment rather than as criminals. Most people are convinced that treatment can work.

Predictably, people born since 1960 are much more likely than older people to regard illegal drugs as a fact of life. For instance, 18 per cent of younger people believe that the sale and possession of cannabis should not only be decriminalised but be positively legalised. Among the pre-war generation, that figure falls to eight per cent.

The survey, one of the largest of its type conducted in Britain, was commissioned by The Daily Telegraph and the RSA's commission on illegal drugs, communities and public policy. Nearly 3,000 people were interviewed.

Given an acceptance that, "whether we like it or not there will always be people who use drugs", 89 per cent of people say the aim of public policy should therefore be to reduce the amount of harm they cause rather than to try to eradicate them.

Only 17 per cent of respondents believe that "it is possible for some people to use some so-called hard drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, quite safely without doing themselves and those around them any more harm than drinking alcohol and smoking in moderation". But when respondents were offered the same proposition about soft drugs such as cannabis, nearly four times that proportion, 64 per cent, indicated that they thought people could use soft drugs relatively harmlessly.

As the figures in the chart show, far more people think that hard drugs are associated with crime than think the same of cannabis.

Asked about the state of the law, large majorities in all age groups - a total of 73 per cent - reckoned that the sale of hard drugs and their possession for personal use should remain criminal offences. Asked the same question about soft drugs, the percentage fell to 38 per cent.

Among people born since 1960, 60 per cent believe that the possession of soft drugs for personal use should be legalised completely or treated as a lesser offence, like speeding or illegal parking.

Eighteen per cent of that generation would legalise the sale as well as the possession of soft drugs.

Clearly, many people believe that drug-users who move on from soft drugs to hard ones do so because they have fallen into a culture in which dealers push all manner of drugs indiscriminately.

That belief probably underlies the widespread view that the law should distinguish more sharply than it does now between hard and soft drugs.

Although the phrase "the demon drink" is seldom heard nowadays, the survey shows that people still regard drink as the greater scourge.

YouGov asked which two, out of consuming alcohol, smoking tobacco and taking illegal drugs, caused "most harm to the largest number of people and their families". Seventy-eight per cent of people cited alcohol, compared with 55 per cent citing illegal drugs.

By more than two to one, respondents reckon that different forms of alcohol and tobacco should be classified, along with illegal drugs, "according to how much harm they are thought to cause individuals and society".

A striking feature of the findings is people's belief that, while the possession and certainly the sale of most drugs should remain illegal, the criminal law is not the best way of tackling the drugs problem.

Respondents were asked how people who had used illegal drugs but not committed any other crime should be treated. Sixty-two per cent said "they should be treated as people who may need treatment and other forms of support". Only 30 per cent said "they should be treated as criminals and brought before the courts".

People evidently believe that the criminal law should focus more on the crimes associated with drug-taking rather than on drug-taking itself.

Seventy-nine per cent of people are apparently convinced that treatment can be effective in weaning users off drugs entirely (42 per cent) or in making it possible for them to lead more normal, crime-free lives (37 per cent).

If heroin users, in particular, fail to respond to other forms of treatment, 48 per cent of respondents believe that "doctors should be encouraged to prescribe maintenance doses of methadone or possibly even heroin itself so that the heroin user's health can be monitored".

Only about a third, 36 per cent, think the courts need to intervene.

Most people believe that the connection between drugs and crime - apart from the fact that drugs themselves are illegal - is overwhelmingly monetary. Eighty-nine per cent are convinced that drug-users are more likely than non-users to commit crimes "because they steal to get money to buy drugs".

YouGov questioned 2,938 adults across Britain online between June 21 and 25.

The data have been weighted to conform to the demographic profile of adults as a whole.

YouGov abides by the rules of the British Polling Council.

• Anthony King is professor of government at Essex University and chairs the commission on illegal drugs, communities and public policy established by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce.

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