Republicans and Democrats alike have chilled to paternalistic drug policies. Weed hardly seems controversial at all. And harder drugs? Incarceration, they say, is no longer an option.
The Pew Research Center recently released a report with some staggering statistics. By huge margins, all demographics believe—rightly—that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol to users and society as a whole. Fully 75 percent of respondents “think that the sale and use of marijuana will eventually be legal nationwide.” Indeed, Colorado and Washington have set the stage.
But what’s more interesting is that tolerance for “hard drug” users has increased dramatically as well. Two-thirds (67 percent) agree that the government should focus more on treatment and rehabilitation—only a minority (26 percent) believe that the focus in drug programs should be on prosecution.
Some cognitive dissonance is disappearing, though. Sixty-three percent of respondents say that they approve of the government getting rid of mandatory minimums for non-violent drug crimes. This is a sign of the times. Between 2009 and 2013, 80 percent of U.S. states eased their drug laws in some capacity.
But at the same time, Americans still believe that drug use is putting the country into an emergency. Between 1995 and 2014—the time period at which this study has been conducted—fears that we are in a “crisis” increased from 31 to 32 percent, even as drug usage went down when excluding marijuana.
There is a terrible dearth of misinformation that is confusing the American public. The sad truth is that legal opioids are what’s causing the “crisis,” not illegal drugs. Need proof? According to the CDC, prescription opioids are killing Americans at five times the rate as heroin. Between 1999 to 2008, opioid-related drug deaths more than tripled, from about 4,000 to 14,800.
But what’s worse is that government crackdowns are making opioid use more dangerous because its turning users to heroin addicts. The DEA and FDA have made it more difficult to get these drugs, so opioid addicts are turning to a similar high from a less safe substance, heroin. For example, after a crackdown in Maryland there was a 15 percent decrease in opioid overdoses. At the same time, heroin-related overdoses surged 41 percent.
America has a golden opportunity here. Cracking down on drugs does far more harm than good—this is well known in the libertarian community. But now public opinion has shifted. A softer approach to drugs—one that emphasizes rehabilitation instead of incarceration—is finally popular.
Policymakers should take note. Divert funding from prisons to rehabilitation centers. Treat drug addiction as the medical problem that it is. The public will stand behind you.