By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - About two-thirds of Americans say drug abusers need access to treatment to address their addiction rather than criminal prosecution that could lead to jail time, according to a poll released on Wednesday that highlights the public's shifting attitude toward illegal drugs in the United States.
While people are still worried about the extent of drug abuse, especially in their schools and neighborhoods, those surveyed supported less harsh punishment for non-violent offenders, especially marijuana users, the Pew Research Center found.
Among the 1,821 U.S. adults polled, 67 percent said they backed treatment for drug users compared to 26 percent who said the government should focus on prosecution. Another 7 percent said they did not know what to focus on.
Two thirds also said they supported the growing movement among some U.S. states to back away from mandatory sentences for minor drug crimes, according to the nonpartisan group's survey. In comparison, less than half of those polled in 2001 backed reduced prison time.
"The public appears ready for a truce in the long-running war on drugs," Pew researchers wrote.
The poll, conducted from February 14 through February 23, comes as policy makers and top U.S. law enforcement officials reexamine the nation's drug policy to allow judges greater discretion in sentencing offenders, although some prosecutors have balked at the effort.
The Obama administration has endorsed reducing prison sentences in federal drug cases, an idea some Republicans also endorse. Lawmakers in Congress in both political parties are also revisiting the issue.
American's relaxing attitude toward marijuana use was particularly clear: 44 percent of those polled said the medical use of the drug should be legal and 39 percent backed its legalization for personal use. Sixteen percent said it should be illegal.
And an overwhelming majority, including supporters and opponents, said the drug will likely be legalized eventually.
A separate Pew poll four years ago found, overall, 52 percent of Americans thought marijuana should be illegal while 41 percent said it should be legal. "Today, those numbers are roughly reversed," researchers said on Wednesday.
Already, 20 states and Washington, D.C. have laws allowing medical use of marijuana while Washington state and Colorado allow wider recreational use.
Despite the softening stance toward U.S. drug policy, many Americans surveyed now said they still harbor concerns about drug abuse and legalized marijuana.
More than half said drug abuse is "a serious problem" while 32 percent called it "a crisis," Pew researchers found. The rest said it was not a problem or did not know.
That is roughly in line with Pew's earlier surveys over the last two decades, the group said.
Those polled this year expressed particular concern about the impact of legalizing marijuana on youth, saying it could lead more children and teenagers to try it.
They also had other worries: 63 percent said if marijuana was legal they would be bothered by people using it in public. Forty-one percent also said they would not want marijuana sellers in their neighborhood.
(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Jim Loney, Bernard Orr)