Public attitudes to drugs


Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) The measurement of changing attitudes towards illegal drugs in Britain

Views about cannabis have shifted considerably over the last two decades, with 41% of Britons now supporting its legalisation, compared to just 12% in 1983.
The research provides evidence to support the notion that cannabis use is becoming ‘normalised’ among the young (in other words, gaining a similar status to cigarette smoking or excessive drinking, where not all young people actually engage in such behaviours, but most encounter them in their daily lives and accept others’ freedom to choose them.)
The sea-change in attitudes towards cannabis observed across all generations is likely to be linked to changing perceptions of the drug’s harmfulness, which have also relaxed in all age groups. Nearly half of the public now agree that cannabis is not as damaging as some people think, compared to a third in 1993. Fewer people now think that cannabis is addictive, and that it causes crime and violence. When asked which drugs are the most harmful to regular users, heroin, cocaine, tobacco and alcohol are at the top of the list; cannabis is barely mentioned.
Knowledge was strongly linked to attitudes, with the most knowledgeable being twice as likely to support the legalisation of cannabis than the least knowledgeable.


Police Foundation/Runciman: Drugs and the law - independent inquiry into the Misuse of Drugs Act 2000 [pdf, 428Kb]

Public attitudes

57 One key question was how people assessed the relative harmfulness of different drugs. Where adults were concerned, substantial majorities of 90 per cent or so across all age ranges – from 16 to 59 years, judged heroin, cocaine, ecstasy and amphetamines to be either very or fairly harmful. By contrast, only one-third judged cannabis to be as harmful, and again this judgement hardly varied with age. Attitudes tended to vary with age where alcohol and tobacco were concerned, with a marked tendency to see these substances as increasingly harmful with increasing age. Among adults from 18 to 59 years, cannabis was seen as by far the least harmful of all these drugs.

58 Public attitudes, therefore, do not lump all drugs together, but adopt a more considered view of the harmfulness of different substances; a view, moreover, which tends to conform with medical and scientific opinion. The one exception to this is that people judge ecstasy to be almost as harmful as heroin and cocaine, whereas scientific opinion tends to judge ecstasy as considerably less harmful.

59 In the schools survey, attitudes towards the perceived harmfulness of drugs were different in important ways. Children aged 11-12 years offered a much simpler testimony, seeing all illicit drugs (including cannabis) as more or less equally harmful. In contrast, 11 to 12 year-olds see alcohol and tobacco as relatively much less harmful, and this view does not change with age among 11-16 year-olds. Attitudes towards cannabis change considerably as young people grow older – so that by age 15-16 years they see cannabis in the same way as adults, that is as among the least harmful of drugs.

61 Between the ages of 11 and 16 years the perceptions of children as they grow older gradually move to approximate the views of adults. The exception is attitude to alcohol and tobacco: only adults see these substances as particularly harmful. The most frequent reasons given by both children and adults for people not taking drugs were ‘health reason’ (33% and 51%) and ‘just don’t want to take drugs’ (27% and 56%). By comparison only 19% of children and 30% of adults mentioned ‘illegality’ and 12% of children and 17% of adults cited ‘fear of being caught by the police’.

63 The MORI survey evidence suggests that people view the health consequences of drug use as a more important deterrent than legal controls. They do want strong and effective drug controls, but do not believe that the police alone can be effective in curbing the damage caused by drug misuse. When asked to state what priority the police should give to a variety of different offences, heroin dealing and sexual assaults were seen as by far the most important. They were mentioned by two-thirds of respondents. Assault, racial violence and drink-driving were mentioned by one-third, with burglary and muggings mentioned by one in five. At the lower end of the spectrum heroin users (as opposed to dealers) were mentioned by only 8%, and cannabis dealers by 9%. Cannabis users, on the other hand, were hardly mentioned at all as a police priority – by less than half of one per cent of respondents.

64 It is clear on this evidence that cannabis stands out as a special case in public attitudes towards drugs in modern Britain. It is seen by adults as by far the least harmful of all drugs, including alcohol and tobacco. The possession of cannabis is seen as the very lowest of priorities for the allocation of police resources. A majority of adults, young and old, even feel that its use should be legalised. Where other drugs are concerned, public opinion fully supports strong drug laws, while emphasising concern with the health risks resulting from drug use. We were particularly impressed by the uniformity of these attitudes towards cannabis and other drugs across different social groups and age groups. Perhaps most surprisingly in terms of the way in which public debate is often constructed, there was no evidence of a ‘generation gap’ in public attitudes towards the use of cannabis.

65 This last point perhaps indicates as well as anything how far public attitudes towards drug use may have changed in the past thirty years. Unfortunately, there are no directly similar surveys from the past to compare with our own findings. The MORI poll which we commissioned is undoubtedly the most comprehensive survey of its type to be as yet conducted in Britain. Even so, we can offer some idea of how attitudes seem to have changed on some questions, although unfortunately most of these relate only to the legal status of cannabis.