Pubdate: Wed, 21 Mar 2001
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 2001 San Francisco Chronicle
Contact:  901 Mission St., San Francisco CA 94103
Author: Larry D Hatfield, Chronicle Staff Writer
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Cited: Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation


Survey Finds Public Favors Treatment

The U.S. public increasingly perceives the war on drugs to be an abject
failure, a new study said today, and drug experts see that as a hopeful
sign that the nation may be edging toward a more effective and broader
approach to dealing with its drug epidemic.

"It makes a difference," said Daniel Abrahamson, director of the San
Francisco-based Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, noting that
today's findings by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press
agree with other recent polls.

"The vast majority of people believe the war on drugs is not working,"
Abrahamson said. "That opens the door for innovative different policies
focused on the public health approach rather than the criminal justice
system-drug war approach."

"It's good the public is becoming more aware," added Prija Haji, a founder
and director of East Palo Alto's Free At Last community drug resources
organization. "But we've got to continue to push the envelope on public
education (about drugs and addiction). We've got to make people realize it
is a health problem, not a criminal problem."

They and others said the Pew study underlined the need for a more diverse
approach to drugs.

A sign of the possibly changing climate came yesterday when White House
spokesman Scott McClellan said the Bush administration is looking for the
right blend in developing its drug strategy.

"Fighting illegal drugs is a priority for President Bush because drugs
destroy our neighborhoods, harm our children and ruin lives," McClellan
said, adding that the administration favors "a balanced approach to combat
drugs based on education, treatment and law enforcement."

The Pew study showed that while three-fourths of Americans think the war on
drugs is being lost, they also believe the government still should give top
priority to arresting drug dealers and stopping the importation of drugs.

"This suggests the public is frustrated with the war on drugs and doesn't
think it's succeeding," Pew pollster Andrew Kohut said. "But it is still
sticking with the tactics of the drug war, giving the highest priorities to
interdiction and incarceration."

That's unfortunate, Haji said, who believes the public must embrace a wider
approach to dealing the drugs before the government will change its policies.

"A lot of times the political will lags behind public opinion," she said.
"And the pendulum has swung so far in the one direction in the war on drugs
- -- with huge amounts of resources dedicated to interdiction, incarceration
and enforcement -- it is going to take a great force for it to swing back."

But she sees some hopeful signs, including the fact that more people are
realizing that the burgeoning prison industry of California and other
states is economically unsustainable.

"When California and Texas are dedicating more and more of their state
budgets to incarceration, people see it can't go on," she said, suggesting
that there soon will be an outcry against building new prisons just as
there was an outcry about out-of-control military spending in the past.

"What troubles me is that the outcry on incarceration is so late because so
many of the people being incarcerated are low income and people of color,"
she said. "It takes just one (white actor) Robert Downey Jr. to have a drug
problem to raise people's compassion when in fact there are thousands of
such stories in East Palo Alto, Bayview-Hunters Point and other such

Still, Haji said, she believes that the public is beginning to perceive the
drug problem as a public health problem rather than simply a crime problem
and that public policy must include education, treatment, prevention and
other options beyond locking people up. Half of those polled by Pew
believed drug abuse should be treated as a disease, while a third think it
should be a crime.

"I'm not suggesting there isn't some role the police are going to have to
play," she said, "but even the police recognize the limitations of a
singular approach. We're trying to make everyone into a nail because all
we've got is a hammer."

The drug situation involves a multiple set of issues -- lack of education,
poverty, joblessness and so on -- that require "a diversity of approaches
and resources," Haji said. "The reality is that if we were to re-direct
resources .

. . it's not going to be a panacea any more than incarceration. But we have
to have more balance. The public is becoming more aware of that."

Abrahamson is somewhat optimistic about the public's perception of what
needs to be done about drugs, noting that in the past four years, various
voter initiatives have passed in California and elsewhere on medical marijuana,

access to drug treatment, property seizure reform and other issues.

"There is an increasing public sentiment that understands the war on drugs
has failed," he said. "And that provides great opportunity. We're going to
see more approaches that provide alternatives to the
lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key approach."

There has been "a sea change in public opinion," he said, that is reflected
in increasingly serious discussions going on at all levels of government on
drug policy reforms. "None of this discussion would be occurring among
politicians unless they sensed that the public believed it was time for a

Abrahamson also said the hit movie "Traffic" has helped raise public
awareness. Borrowing a line from the film, he said, "It's encouraging
people to 'think out of the box' and that's being picked up by the

The movie has been cited several times in the growing Congressional debate
on balancing the punishment and treatment of the nation's drug users.

Less optimistic was Nora Callahan, founder of the Colville, Wash.,-based
November Coalition, a group she founded when her brother was sentenced to
27 1/2 years in federal prison on a drug rap.

Calling the United States a police state and prison-industrial complex, she
said government lock-them-up policies won't change until the public demands it.

"First, there has to be public awareness," she said. "That's coming. People
know the war has failed. They have a sense of that. They're not happy with
what we have, but they're not really sure what we need to have.

"The prison system is just about collapsing from the strain of overcrowding
and budget cuts. There's no room at the inn. The public is sick of this.
America is squirming. We have 5 percent of the world's population and 25
percent of its prisoners.

"Everyone knows that has to change."

Two-thirds of those polled by Pew said they believe Latin American nations
never will control drug traffic.

The poll showed blacks and those with low incomes and less education have
high concerns about the potential effects of drug use on their families.

Four of five blacks said they were at least somewhat concerned about the
effects of drugs on their family and seven of 10 with incomes under $20,000
or less than a high school education felt that way.

Opinions about whether drug use is a crime or a disease split along
political lines, with Republicans saying it should be a crime by 48 percent
to 38 percent with Democrats calling it a disease by a two-to-one ratio.

Young people were far more likely than older people to say it was a disease
and the 1,513 adults surveyed were about evenly split on eliminating
mandatory sentences.

In other findings:

- -- Slightly more than half of those surveyed said drug interdiction should
be a government priority, down from two-thirds in 1988.

- -- Half said arresting dealers should be emphasized, down from 60 percent

- -- A third said drug education was key, down from 50 percent.

- -- Almost a third said arresting users was a priority.
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