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MORE than half of Australians support reduced legal penalties for use of drugs like cannabis and ecstasy, an analysis of a government survey shows.
The findings contrast with the Nielsen poll released yesterday which showed that two-thirds of people opposed decriminalisation.
But that is explained by the different way the poll questions were structured says Alison Ritter, who heads a drug policy modelling program at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales.
Police bring remove cannabis plants following a raid. Photo: Gary Sissons
Professor Ritter says the different results reflect the different responses likely when people are asked about specific approaches rather than about the broader decriminalisation question put in the Herald/Nielsen poll, which asked: ''Do you support or oppose decriminalising drug use?''
Her group's analysis of the federal government's 2010 household survey on drugs sampled about 26,000 people.
The analysis was based on poll questions which asked people what should happen to any person found in possession of small quantities of specified drugs.
While the analysis finds nearly three-quarters of Australians support lighter penalties, or effectively decriminalisation of cannabis, more than half oppose making personal use of such drugs legal. The poll listed options such as no action, a warning, referral to treatment, a small fine, or criminal-level penalties like a heavy fine, community service or prison.
In the case of possession of small quantities of cannabis, 72 per cent of respondents chose the lighter penalty, as did 52 per cent when asked about ecstasy. About 46 per cent chose the lighter penalty for heroin and methamphetamine.
However, when people were asked a broader question as to whether they thought drugs should be made legal, support for change dropped sharply.
Only 22 per cent supported while 51 per cent opposed ''legalisation'' of cannabis. When asked the same question in relation to ecstasy, heroin and methamphetamine, support fell to only 6 per cent and opposition to 80 per cent.
Professor Ritter said the results made it apparent that people had a clear understanding of the impact of legal issues when it came to personal use of illicit drugs.
''Australians have for many years now shown a very humane approach when it comes to the personal use of illicit drugs.''
But when it came to legalising drugs or applying penalties for sale and supply of drugs, most Australians support tougher penalties.
Professor Ritter said the figures did not contradict the Herald poll findings because that put the question in a different way, asking for a response to a generalised concept, ''decriminalisation'', which would elicit a more cautious response.
Nielsen polling director John Stirton said he did not think the two poll results showed fundamental differences.
In putting questions for such a survey, Nielsen sought to make the questions as ''clean'' as possible to avoid leading the respondent.
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