Poll: South Carolina Primary Voters Support Ending Mass Incarceration, Decriminalizing Drug Possession, Treating Drugs as a Health Issue

Press Release February 17, 2016
Media Contact


Stephen Gutwillig (323) 542-2606
Tony Newman (646) 335-5384

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:

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:

“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.

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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