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Drug Abuse Still Seen as a Major Evil : Survey: But county residents are more likely than people nationally to favor legalization.

September 29, 1993|ERIC YOUNG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVINE — Drug abuse continues to be viewed as a major problem by Orange County residents, who nevertheless are a good deal more likely than people nationwide to believe that at least some street drugs should be legalized, according to the results of an annual survey released Tuesday by a local anti-drug organization.

The Drug Use Is Life Abuse survey found that 48% of Orange County residents identify "drug abuse" as a major problem, listing it as the third most serious problem in the county. It trailed only "jobs and the economy," 61%, and "crime and gangs," 58%.

In Orange County, 23% of residents think legalizing drugs like marijuana, cocaine and heroin is a good idea, and another 8% think at least some of these drugs should be legalized under some circumstances, according to the poll.

Nationally, 14% of adults in a 1990 Gallup survey approved of legalization, with another 2% favoring more limited legalization.

The countywide survey, which questioned 600 adult residents from June 15 through 19 in English and Spanish, has a sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. It was conducted by Mark Baldassare & Associates of Irvine under the sponsorship of Drug Use Is Life Abuse, a nonprofit organization co-founded by Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates.

The poll also found that nearly nearly two in five county residents know someone who uses illegal street drugs. That is almost identical to results in a similar poll last year, in which 39% of county residents said they knew someone, such as a family member or friend, who used illegal drugs such as cocaine, marijuana or heroin.

Baldassare, a UC Irvine social ecology professor, said that although this year's poll contained a question on legalization that differed slightly from the one posed last year, "you could make the argument" that the two polls indicate there may be a small increase in county residents who favor legalization. Last year's poll showed 14% of county residents in favor of legalizing these drugs.

Three local judges ignited the legalization debate in Orange County last year when they declared that the "war on drugs" had been lost.

Orange County Superior Court Judge James P. Gray, who would like to see regulated distribution of certain drugs, argued that eliminating some of the existing drug laws would alleviate court congestion, free jail space and save taxpayer money. His comments drew strong criticism from many local officials, including Sheriff Brad Gates.

"It sounds to me like the numbers of people that are beginning to think about this are growing," Gray said Tuesday of the survey results. "I don't particularly find this to be surprising."

Gray is now circulating a petition calling for greater scrutiny and reform of the nation's drug policies. This summer he presented 1,700 signatures on the petition to Lee P. Brown, the Clinton Administration's drug policy director.

The local debate over legalization takes place at a time of growing national attention to questions about the effectiveness of some of the country's drug laws.

U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, for example, has raised questions about massive federal spending to cut off the flow of illicit drugs entering the country. Reno has also directed a review of federal prosecution and sentencing policies to determine if low-level drug offenders are receiving excessive sentences.

Perhaps not surprisingly, county residents are split on the status of the government's war on drugs, according to the poll, with 44% saying progress has been made while 42% declaring that the war has been lost.

"I've struggled with that one myself," said Gates, who attended a press conference announcing the organization's second annual poll findings.

Gates has concluded that law enforcement agencies are making progress. As evidence, he pointed to a 70% decrease in the last four years in Orange County in drug-related deaths involving youths. He also noted a 31% decrease in cocaine overdoses of adults in the last three years, according to county coroner statistics.

The survey found that about two-thirds of county residents support spending more on drug-abuse education and law-enforcement programs. Slightly more than half support more spending on programs for drug treatment and rehabilitation.

An overwhelming majority of residents--98%--said they think their children's schools should have drug-education programs.

That finding shows that "drugs are a great concern among parents and parents want preventive education to take place in the schools," Baldassare said.

The poll also showed that drug-awareness programs have spread to job sites, Baldassare said. More than 40% of Orange County residents said their employers have drug-education programs.

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