Public perception of drugs and drug policy

Members of the public are becoming increasingly aware of drug abuse and its consequences and are taking an interest in national drug policy. However, the results of several surveys and opinion polls show that attitudes to drugs are not uniform throughout the EU.

A survey conducted in Voralberg, Austria, found that 63 % of students and 40–45 % of adults are opposed to punishment for cannabis use by persons over 18. In Vienna, 78 % of people surveyed expressed the opinion that cannabis should be prohibited but favoured decriminalisation for drug addicts, constituting a large proportion of the 86 % who agreed that drug addicts should receive therapy rather than punishment. Another survey, conducted in Spain in 2002 by the Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas, found that drugs and alcohol are perceived as an important social problem, behind unemployment and terrorism, but ahead of delinquency and civic insecurity. In France, the percentage of people in favour of cannabis being sold openly rose from 17 % in 1999 to 24 % in 2002, and almost three-quarters of French people (Beck et al., 2002) think that it is not possible to achieve a world without drugs. However, half of respondents believed that experimentation with cannabis is dangerous, two-thirds of people questioned believed in the ‘gateway effect’ (62) and 65 % opposed decriminalisation of cannabis even under certain conditions (while 88 % opposed decriminalisation of heroin use). In Ireland, a survey of attitudes to cannabis use conducted by Lansdowne Market Research, (involving face-to-face interviews of a national representative sample of 1 159 adults aged 15 years and older) indicated that opinion is highly variable. While almost two-thirds of those eligible to vote (18 years and over) felt that cannabis should be allowed for medical reasons (provided medical benefit had been proven), only a minority (1 in 7) were in favour of outright legalisation. The low level of support for legalisation probably reflects the fact that cannabis is believed to be a gateway drug. In the United Kingdom, the proposed reclassification of cannabis from a class B to a class C drug stimulated a widespread debate, with some people for and others against the reclassification.

(62)  The ‘gateway effect or theory’ implies the existence of a sequential stage of progression in the use of drugs. For further information see ODCCP (2000).