Attitudes to Cannabis are More Tolerant – But There Are Still Clear Limits on Drug-Taking

People are becoming more tolerant of the use of cannabis, but there are still clear limits to what is acceptable in the area of illegal drug-taking, according to new research funded by the ESRC.

Views about cannabis have shifted considerably over the past two decades, with 41 per cent of Britons now supporting its legalisation – up from just 12 per cent in 1983. However, very few (eight per cent) endorse the view that adults should be free to take any drugs they wish, says the report into a study led by Nina Stratford of the National Centre for Social Research.

The opinions of some 1,000 people in England and Wales and 1600 in Scotland were surveyed. Attitudes towards heroin remain very negative with nine in ten believing it should stay illegal – the same proportion as in 1993.

Ecstasy is seen in a similar light, with again nine in 10 wanting it to remain illegal. Only seven per cent agree that ecstasy is not as damaging as some people think, and three-quarters believe that its legalisation would lead to an increase in addiction. The view that ecstasy is a ‘soft’ drug similar to cannabis has little public support.

Most people (86 per cent) support allowing cannabis to be prescribed by doctors for medical purposes. As observed in 1995 research, the young, more educated, professionals and Londoners are more liberal in their attitudes towards the drug.

Nina Stratford points out, however, that the increase in liberal attitudes is not confined to those groups. She said: “It is a society-wide phenomenon affecting all ages and social backgrounds.”
Fewer people now think that cannabis is harmful or addictive or that it causes crime and violence. When asked which drugs are the most harmful to regular users, heroin, cocaine, tobacco and alcohol were top of the list.

By contrast, perception of the damage caused by heroin does not change. In fact, today more people link it with crime and violence than a decade ago.

Nina Stratford’s research supports the notion that cannabis use is becoming accepted alongside drinking or smoking, particularly among young people, whether or not they partake themselves.
Two-thirds of 18-34 year-olds have a friend or family member who has used illegal drugs, half have tried cannabis themselves, and only a third think that cannabis should remain illegal. More than half (55 per cent) accept that using illegal drugs is a normal part of some people’s lives – up from 41 per cent in 1995 – and even those young people who have never used cannabis are more liberal about its legalisation.

Attitudes to cannabis may have become more tolerant, but the research uncovered clear limits to peoples’ tolerance. Researchers found that the idea of giving users clean needles was backed by nearly two-thirds of adults. Giving harm-reduction information to young people is also accepted by 55 per cent in Britain as a whole and 47 per cent in Scotland.

However, when it comes to prescribing drugs, people’s attitudes are very restrictive. Nina Stratford said: “We found that very few people support allowing doctors to prescribe drugs for addicts – something which has been an established part of medical practice for almost a century.”

For further information, contact:
Nina Stratford on 020 7549 9574 (work), 0208 986 8205 (home) or 07818 435 906 (mobile) or e-mail:
Or Lesley Lilley or Anna Hinds at ESRC, on 01793 413032/413119

Media Contact

Anna Hinds ESRC

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