Conventional wisdom might dictate that the most effective approach to reducing drug use would be to make drugs illegal. Though ever since Nixon declared war on drugs in 1971, calling drug abuse “public enemy number one” and implementing aggressive, heavy-handed enforcement, there have been mixed results. As Dan Baum says in Harper’s Magazine, “How did the United States entangle itself in a policy of drug prohibition that has yielded so much misery and so few good results?”
The current debate about America’s drug policy, and the experiment with marijuana in a handful of states is challenging longheld assumptions about combatting drug use, and public opinion is reflecting this new reality. In Barna’s most recent study, American adults were asked their view on the legality of drugs in the U.S. Though many believe most drugs should be illegal, a majority hold a more nuanced view, particularly when it comes to recreational drugs like marijuana.
Drugs Should Be Illegal, but with Exceptions
When asked their view on the legality of drugs in the U.S., one-third of the general population believes all drugs should be illegal (32%). This reflects the relatively strict policy of prohibition that has been dominant in the United States for the last few decades. Though the most popular view, and one that has gained significant ground in recent years is less black and white: two in five adults (40%) now believe only hard drugs should be illegal, but recreational drugs like marijuana should be legal. Smaller percentages (13%) believe all drugs should be legal but regulated, and only 3 percent believe all drugs should be legal and there should be no regulations on drugs. Just over one in 10 (12%) have no opinion on the issue.
Legality of Drugs Popular Among the Young, Non-Religious, and Liberal
Though still an opinion held by many, the belief that all drugs should be illegal is becoming less popular, particularly among the younger generations. Less than three in 10 Millennials (29%) believe all drugs should be illegal, a view that increases in popularity with age, with nearly half of all Elders (46%) holding this belief.
Faith and ideology are also key indicators—practicing Christians (43%) are more likely than average to believe all drugs should be illegal, and evangelicals are more than double the national average at 66 percent. Those with no faith are much lower at only 17 percent. When it comes to political ideology, more than half of conservatives (51%) believe all drugs should be illegal, compared to only 17 percent of liberals.
Recreational Drugs Like Marijuana Should Be Legal
As of right now, twenty-five states and the District of Columbia currently have laws legalizing marijuana in some form. Alaska, Oregon, Washington and Colorado have all legalized recreational marijuana. Many of these laws are brand new, passing in the last five or six years. Barna’s data reflects this reality, showing that two in five adults (40%) believe only hard drugs should be illegal, but recreational drugs like marijuana should be legal. Again, the younger generations favor this view more than the older generations. 42 percent of Millennials favor the legalization of recreational drugs like marijuana, compared to only one-quarter of Elders (24%).
Practicing Christians (34%) are a little lower than average, but evangelicals (16%) are among the lowest segment to believe recreational drugs like marijuana should be legal. Half of those with no faith (49%) favor legalizing recreational drugs. Again, the ideological divide is clear, with liberals almost twice as likely as conservatives to favor the legalization of recreational drugs like marijuana (51% compared to 27%).
In one of Barna’s previous studies in 2014, it was found that 58 percent of adults believed marijuana should be made legal in the U.S. Though the questions were asked differently in the 2014 and the 2016 surveys—making it impossible to compare them directly—by adding together all those in the 2016 survey who believe either that recreational drugs like marijuana should be legal (40%) or that all drugs should be legal, regulated (13%) or not (3%), the total number would be 56 percent, very close to the 58 percent reported on the 2014 survey, showing a certain level of consistency when it comes to support for the legalization of recreational drugs across the country.
Most Believe in Drug Regulation
That said, almost everyone still believes there should be some regulation on drugs, even when they are completely legal. Thirteen percent of the general population believe all drugs should be legal but regulated, while only a small fraction of the population believe all drugs should be legal without regulation (3%). The only groups with a slightly higher than average response for zero regulation were liberals and those with no faith, both with 6 percent each.
What the Research Means
“As with so many issues of social morality, the divisions around legalizing drug use fall along generational, religious and ideological lines,” says Roxanne Stone, editor in chief of Barna and director of the study. “However, views toward recreational drug use in particular, are softening. Evangelicals and conservatives (often overlapping groups) remain most opposed to legalizing any kind of drug. This is certainly true to a religious history of abstinence from intoxicating substances. Additionally, much of the ‘war on drugs’ was framed in the context of family values—an ideology that drove much of the conservative right for the past forty years.
“The general population though—particularly younger Americans—have grown weary of the war on drugs and the pressures it has placed on law enforcement, prisons and tax dollars,” Stone observes. “While Americans are not comfortable ending the war altogether, they are expressing a desire to see the money and energy of that war funneled toward harder drugs and alternative approaches.
“Christians have a long history of weighing the morality of alcohol and drug use,” Stone continues. “Those debates will likely continue—and more Christians, especially younger ones, will probably begin to see marijuana as an acceptable pastime. Spiritual influencers will need to approach conversations around drugs with care, showing grace even as they caution against the potential long-term damage that drug use and abuse can cause.
“Churches have a unique insight into this damage—having long played host to various addiction services. Often meeting in church basements and fellowship halls, these ministries remain a unique way the church can support those who are struggling with any kind of substance abuse.” Stone concludes. “The presence of addiction support groups continues to be one of the most positive and helpful outreach tools churches have around these issues.”
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About the Research
The study on which these findings are based was conducted via online survey from April 7 to April 14, 2016. A total of 1,097 interviews were conducted. The sample error is plus or minus 2.8 percentage points at 95-percent confidence level. The completion rate was 85%.
Practicing Christian: Those who attend a religious service at least once a month, who say their faith is very important in their lives and self-identify as a Christian
No faith: identify as agnostic or atheist, or as having no faith
Evangelicals: Have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and believe that, when they die, they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, plus seven other conditions. These conditions include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”
Millennials: Born between 1984 and 2002
Busters/Gen-Xers: Born between 1965 and 1983
Boomers: Born between 1946 and 1964
Elders: Born between 1945 or earlier
Liberal: identify as mostly liberal when it comes to political issues.
Conservative: identify as mostly conservative when it comes to political issues.
About Barna Group
The Barna Group is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2016.