In 2002, 1 in 12 Americans aged 12 and older admitted that they currently use illicit drugs. According to the 2002 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, conducted by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 19.5 million Americans said they had used such drugs in the month preceding the interview. That's a startling figure, but what do Gallup Poll data tell us about the relative severity of the drug problem in the United States compared with countries with similar social conditions?
Gallup recently asked residents of the United States, Great Britain, and Canada* how serious the drug problem is in their respective countries. Seventy-one percent of Americans think that the drug problem is "extremely" or "very" serious, and a similar percentage (72%) of those in Great Britain feel the same way about the drug problem in their country. However, only 47% of Canadians would classify the severity of the drug problem in their country that way.
The lower level of concern about the drug problem among Canadians may reflect their relatively more tolerant views about drug use in general. For example, Canadian laws regulating the use of marijuana have been scaled down in recent years, and Canada was the first country to adopt guidelines for the medicinal use of marijuana in 2001. A 2002 Gallup survey found that only 22% of Canadians felt that possession of small amounts of marijuana should be considered a criminal offense, while 40% said it should be subject to a fine and a substantial minority (37%) said it should be no offense at all (see "Canadians Relax Views on Marijuana" in Related Items).
Drug Problem in Local Communities
While drugs are perceived to be a significant national issue (especially in the United States and Great Britain), fewer people seem concerned about the seriousness of the drug problem in their local areas. This could be a manifestation of "local proximity bias" (see "Americans' Satisfaction: There's No Place Like Home" in Related Items) -- the tendency to believe that conditions are better in one's own area than in the nation at large.
In all three countries, far fewer -- at least half the number who said that drugs were an extremely or very serious problem nationwide -- said that the drug problem is at least very serious in the areas where they live. Although Canadians are still the least likely to say that drugs are a serious problem where they live, the gaps between the three countries narrow significantly on this question.
Drug Problems in the Family
American, British, and Canadian respondents were also asked whether drug abuse has ever been a cause of trouble in their families. About one in four Americans (24%) responded affirmatively to this question, a significantly higher percentage than in Canada (13%) or Great Britain (9%). Nearly the same percentage of Americans who said that drugs are a serious problem in their local communities also said that drugs have been a problem in their families.
Although British residents are just as likely as Americans to perceive a serious drug problem in their country and in their local areas, they are the least likely to feel that drugs have caused trouble in their families. In other words, though Britons are quite pessimistic about the drug problem in general terms, they are unlikely to say it has personally affected them.
Simon Sarkar, polling director for The Gallup Organization in the United Kingdom, believes that this British sentiment arises from an overall unease about crime in Great Britain today. "I think that perhaps what we are seeing here is the British public's perception of the wider impact of drug abuse on society and the associated problems that it causes -- drug-related crime such as burglaries, muggings, etc." The December 2003 survey shows a high level of concern among Britons about all crime-related issues.
*Results in the United States are based on telephone interviews with 1,017 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Oct. 6-8, 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. The survey was conducted by Gallup USA.
Results in Canada are based telephone interviews with 1,012 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Dec. 5-11, 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. The survey was conducted by Gallup Canada.
Results in Great Britain are based telephone interviews with 1,000 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Dec. 2-21, 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points. The survey was conducted by Gallup UK.