If a comprehensive poll released last weekend is accurate -- and there is no reason to think it isn't -- British public opinion on drug policy is headed in the wrong direction. The poll conducted by ICM Research for the Observer and the Guardian newspapers found that public attitudes toward drug use, drug users, and drug sellers had grown decidedly more hard-line in recent years.
According to the poll, the proportion of people who think drug laws are "too liberal" has increased from 25% in 2002 to 32% now. At the same time, the number of people who think the drug laws are "not liberal enough" has dropped from 30% to 18%, and support for decriminalizing soft drugs has declined from 38% to 27%.
Respondents showed little sympathy for people who distribute drugs, whether they be professional drug dealers or merely sharing them with friends. About 70% said that all dealers should be treated the same -- with prison sentences. And 63% said drug addicts should be imprisoned.
Somewhat paradoxically, there is strong, though not majority, support for decriminalizing drug possession (38%) and making drugs available to addicts by prescription (44%).
Home Secretary Jacqui Smith told the newspapers hardening public attitudes were driven in part by concerns about stronger strains of cannabis. Both the Labor government and the British tabloid media have been engaged in a sometimes hysterical campaign to whip up fears about "skunk" in particular, as if that specific high-potency strain were somehow different from "regular" marijuana.
"This is a very important determinant of our decision to reclassify [cannabis from a Class C to a Class B drug]. This is a different drug even to that which was reclassified from B down to C [in 2003]," she claimed. "People are now beginning to recognize this isn't just some kind of harmless thing, but can have a serious impact on young people's mental health." People also realized marijuana production involved organized crime, she added.
But Martin Smith, the director of Drugscope, told newspapers the media and the government had falsely portrayed the drug problem as worse than it really was. "Although overall illegal drug use has been falling and significant progress has been made in tackling drug-related crime, many people believe the problem at best is getting no better," he said.