Are the general public generally wrong about drugs?

In a society where the general public are misinformed and thus, according to Ipsos Mori 'wrong about almost everything' the question is: who is guiding these opinions, and why do policies continue to be directed by hysteria and bigotry?

Aimee Tollan
19 February 2014

The use of mind-altering substances in the western world has gone from being a foundation of that society to being almost completely prohibited. Altering consciousness using psychoactive substances is not a recent phenomenon; humankind’s history with cannabis dates back 10,000 years. Ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes states, “there are few areas of the globe that lack at least one significant hallucinogen in their past and present cultural history". So how have we come to this almost universal state of prohibition? And if we want to limit the dangers associated with drugs is the ‘war on drugs’ approach really the best way forward?

For just over four decades this ‘war’ has been fought by attempting to eradicate supply and deter use by criminalisation and prohibition. The United Nations states that 70% of the drugs market needs to be abolished if there is to be any significant effect on supply. However, the figure that is actually achieved averages at 20%. This huge disparity makes it quite apparent that the ‘war’ is being lost.

A report by the United Kingdom Drug Policy Council (UKDPC, an independent body providing objective analysis of UK drug policy), tells us that the three main areas for the UK fight against drugs are supply, demand and harm reduction. After providing a set of discouraging statistics showing how the goals on this are not met, it states that the current strategies employed by the government to tackle the drugs trade have little adverse effect on the availability of drugs and, where operations are effective, they tend to be short-lived and the “extremely resilient” drugs market remains. Not only is the attempt at eliminating the trade in illicit substances failing, but other drug policies are also in a state of disrepair.

Further evidence to support the need for drug policy reform is given in a 2006 study by Melrose. She states that drug policies do not encompass everyone’s needs and are based on “electoral anxieties”, meaning that the government formulates policies upon what they think the ‘general voting population’ want in order to obtain more votes. This approach to policy formulation is ineffective for a number of reasons. Firstly, a recent study by Ipsos Mori (2013) showed that the general public are “wrong about almost everything”. A survey was conducted on 1,015 people aged 16-75 which showed a number of shocking misconceptions held by the general public. For example, people believed that 31% of the population consists of recent immigrants when in fact the figure is 15%. Furthermore it was thought that Black and Asian people make up 30% of the population when the figure is 11%.

The biggest disparity was the figure for teenage pregnancy; every year 15% of girls were thought to become mothers under 16 years of age, whereas the correct proportion is 0.06%. Would these trends be seen with regards to drug policy I wonder? And if this is the case, and the government is formulating policies on “electoral anxieties” (but the general public are misinformed), how can this possibly be a sensible way forward? More importantly, why do the general public have such misconceptions of society? What influences their views? 

In 2012, for my undergraduate dissertation at the University of Kent at Canterbury, I embarked upon a project to explore public attitudes towards illicit substances. If we have seen that the public can be so misinformed on other aspects of society, can the same be said with regards to drugs? And if so, what influences this? Could it be age, education, or the media that contribute most towards shaping people’s views? Perhaps it is a mixture of all three and, if so, which plays the biggest part in this? 

After a little background research I formulated the following hypotheses - younger people will have more liberal attitudes towards drugs than older people; those who have finished higher education will have more liberal attitudes towards drugs than those who have not finished higher education; and Guardian readers will have more liberal attitudes towards drugs than Daily Mail readers (these papers were chosen as they represent opposite ends of the political spectrum). 

These are all suppositions, and this is what the study set out to investigate. The investigation consisted of an online survey to gather data from the general public, with an extensive set of questions asking anything ranging from views on drug policy, prohibition, personal drug use, frequency of drug use, knowledge of illicit substances, down to their views on the length of prison sentences for suppliers of controlled substances. 115 participants completed the survey, which due to the delicate nature of discussing illegal drugs was entirely anonymous. The only information I asked for was age, gender and whether or not they had completed higher education. I did, however, have a good range in the age of participants, from 18 to 82 years of age.



British tabloids/ Wikimedia/ Al Lemos. Creative commons

There were a good number of interesting results to pick out from the reams of data generated from the survey. A few worthy of note include, when asked whether they thought that the legalisation of illicit substances was a good idea: 56.4% of Daily Mail readers answered ‘No’ as opposed to 11.8% of Guardian readers. Overall, regarding media source, Guardian readers had consumed more substances more frequently and had a better knowledge of illicit substances than Daily Mail readers, and this was confirmed as a statistical significant difference. For example 41% of Daily Mail readers answered ‘Never’ when asked how often they consumed illicit substances compared to 14.5% of Guardian readers. When asked whether illicit substances had a place in every-day life 67.1% of Guardian readers thought that there was, compared to 35.9% of Daily Mail readers. All of the results found a significant difference supporting the hypothesis that Guardian readers have more liberal attitudes towards drugs than the participants who read the Daily Mail. 

But were age and education also found to be contributing factors to the participants’ views? When asked whether they agreed with legalisation of illicit substances, 13.8% of the younger participants said ‘No’ compared to 40.4% of the older participants. Younger participants had taken more drugs more frequently and had a better knowledge of substances and drug policy than the older participants. In summary, the hypothesis ‘younger people will have a more liberal attitude towards drugs than older people’ seemed accepted. 

Education showed a similar trend, although it did not show the same statistical disparities as was seen with the ‘age’ and ‘education’ hypotheses. So overall, which variable had the most influence on the participants’ views on drugs? The most statistically significant factor that influenced their view on drugs was the media. 

Younger Guardian readers had the most liberal views on drugs and older Daily Mail readers held the least liberal attitudes towards drugs, took less substances, less frequently and had the least knowledge about substances and drug policy. This statement is quite worrying to me. It implies that there are people who hold rigid views upon a subject that they do not know a great deal about. If you hold stringent beliefs about illicit drugs and you are clued-up but, for instance, you still disagree with decriminalisation of illicit substances, then fair enough. However, if you do not really know a great deal about drugs, have never really tried them, nor do you know much about drug policy, and you still believe that prohibition is the best way forward you are displaying a fine example of bigotry.  

If a larger survey was conducted and we find similar results, what does this mean for society? Are the media misinforming the general public, therefore influencing those “electoral anxieties”? Journalist Angus Macqueen, in his 2010 article in The Observer, mentions a ‘fear of the Daily Mail’ that is instilled in politicians. How much control does the Daily Mail have on policies, just because policymakers are scared of having their names dragged through the mud by journalists? This idea is catastrophic for drug policy reform. A reasonable solution will never be reached if policies are formulated this way. 

Non-drug users and drug users should open a dialogue to increase understanding that when drugs are taken in a responsible manner, they rarely make people act dangerously and can be enjoyed responsibly.  We need our policymakers to use the evidence base and not be driven solely by the moral panic that surrounds the newspaper stories that tell us “drugs are bad and will kill you”.

We need to move away from the idea that all drug use must be eradicated, because drug use always has and always will be there. Many of the harms associated with drug use are caused by its legal status, and when use does become problematic it is usually a symptom of underlying personal or social problems. Drug use, if regulated effectively, can be a legitimate and enjoyable part of society in the same way that alcohol and tobacco can be when used sensibly. We all need to be better educated and more sensible when it comes to drugs, and very, very aware of the power of the unelected media in shaping politics. 

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