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A large majority of South Carolina presidential primary voters across party lines support ending mass incarceration, and a substantial majority support decriminalizing drug possession outright, according to a new poll released by the Drug Policy Alliance.

70 percent of voters in the upcoming first Southern state primary consider substantially reducing the number of Americans in prison an important issue, including majorities of Democrats, Republicans and Independents. In fact, more than a third of primary voters (37 percent) would be more inclined to support a presidential candidate who promised to prioritize downsizing prison populations.

Moreover, 59 percent of primary voters support decriminalizing drug possession, asserting that someone caught with a small amount of any illegal drug for personal use should be offered treatment but not be arrested, let alone face jail time. A commanding 65 percent of South Carolina primary voters believe drug abuse should be treated primarily as a health problem, including strong majorities of Republicans and Independents across all age groups.

“Now is the time for policymakers to show leadership by laying out clear plans to move our country from a failed criminal justice approach to drugs to a health-based approach,” said Stephen Gutwillig, Deputy Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Their goal should be reducing the role that criminalization and the criminal justice system play in dealing with drugs and drug use as much as possible.”

Primary voters in South Carolina are in much less agreement on the meaning of enormous racial disparities in drug law enforcement. People of all races use and sell drugs at similar rates, yet African Americans and Latinos are much more likely to get arrested and jailed for drug offenses. While 79 percent of Democratic primary voters believe drug laws in this country are enforced more harshly on African Americans and Latinos, Republican primary voters overwhelmingly believe they are not (73 percent). These opinions largely track with the race of respondents. Only 31 percent of whites perceive harsher enforcement of African Americans and Latinos, compared to 74 percent of African Americans.

Overall, voters in the Democratic primary in South Carolina are far more likely to favor substantial reform to drug laws and the criminal justice system:

78% believe drug abuse should be treated primarily as a health problem.

75% think we should stop arresting and locking up people for possession of a small amount of any drug for personal use.

68% consider substantially reducing the number of Americans in prison very important. 61% of them would be more likely to support a presidential candidate who promised to prioritize downsizing prison populations.

A poll of New Hampshire voters commissioned by the Drug Policy Alliance prior to last month’s primary found support similar to South Carolina’s for treating drug abuse primarily as a health problem (69 percent) and for ending the criminalization of drug possession outright (66 percent). Reversing harsh, ineffective drug laws is gaining significant momentum in this country. High profile examples include:

Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, allows police to divert individuals who commit low-level drug offenses to harm reduction-based case management services instead of jail. An independent evaluation found LEAD reduces the chance of reoffending by nearly 60 percent compared to a control group. Last year officials from over 30 city, county and state jurisdictions gathered at the White House to discuss LEAD. Pioneered in Seattle, the program has already been replicated in Santa Fe and Albany and is under consideration in Atlanta, Buffalo, Houston, Ithaca (NY), Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, Portland (ME) and San Francisco.

California’s Proposition 47, adopted by 60 percent of voters in 2014, made the Golden State the first to reduce simple drug possession (and five other petty offenses) from a felony to a misdemeanor. Prop 47 has reduced the number of people behind bars by at least 13,000 people, while more than 600,000 are eligible for resentencing of their past felony convictions.

Two weeks ago, a veteran Maryland lawmaker and practicing physician introduced a groundbreaking package of bills that represent a health-centered approach drug policy. The bills would decriminalize simple drug possession and require hospitals and emergency rooms to provide addiction treatment on demand, among other reforms.

“The American people are tired of the failed war on drugs and want new approaches,” said Bill Piper, Senior Director of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Voters want action – decriminalization, reform of mandatory minimums, an end to mass incarceration – and candidates would be wise to pay attention.”

The poll of 1,297 South Carolina primary voters was conducted February 12-14 by Public Policy Polling and has a margin of error of +/-2.7 percent.

Date Published: February 18, 2016
Published by Drug Policy Alliance

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