War on Drugs


It’s been 40 years since president Nixon declared a “war on drugs”, telling Congress that drug addiction had “assumed the dimensions of a national emergency” and proclaiming drug abuse “public enemy number one”.  Fast forward 40 years to the present.  Are we winning the “war on drugs”?

Prison Population
No other country in the world incarcerates as many people as the United States. Nearly 2.4 million people are courrently behind bars in the U.S; more than 1 of every 100 American adults. China, a country of 1.3 billion people – about four times the U.S. population – incarcerates 1.6 million people. Nonviolent U.S. prisoner population alone is more than the populations of Wyoming and Alaska combined.

The number of people in the U.S. behind bars for drug law violations rose from 50,000 in 1980 to more than half a million today, an increase of 1,100%. Of the federal prison population in 2011, drug offenders made up 51% of all prisoners, compared to just 4.2% for robbery, 2.7% for homicide/assault/kidnapping, and 4.7% for sex offenses.

Cost to Tax Payers
The U.S. spends $60 billion dollars every year maintaining its ever-growing prison system. It is the second-fastest growing state budget item, after Medicaid.

Since its inception, America has spent at least $1 trillion on the drug war. It cost U.S. taxpayers at least $51 billion in 2009 at the state and federal level trying to stop the flow and use of drugs. That’s $169 for every man, woman and child in America. 

Change in Drug Use
The U.S. is the world’s No. 1 per capita consumer of illegal drugs, to the tune of $65 billion a year. Drug use in the U.S. has dropped since its peak in 1979, when surveys showed that 54% of high school seniors reported using an illegal drug at least once in the past year; that proportion has bounced up and down since 1988 and has settled at about 38%. But the rate of the most dangerous type of drug use — daily use — has remained virtually unchanged since 1975 for marijuana, cocaine and opioids.

Drug Dealers Getting Richer
The demand curve for drugs is inelastic, meaning that people don’t change their drug consumption very much in response to changes in prices.  Therefore, aggressive enforcement means higher prices and higher revenues for drug dealers. In other words, the more effective prohibition is at raising costs, the greater are drug industry revenues. So, more effective prohibition means that drug sellers have more money to buy guns, pay bribes, fund the dealers, and even research and develop new technologies in drug delivery (like crack cocaine). It’s hard to beat an enemy that gets stronger the more you strike against him or her.

Producing drugs is a very cheap process. Cocaine is available in Colombia for $1500 dollars per kilo and sold on the streets of America for as much as $66,000 a kilo. Heroin costs $2,600/kilo in Pakistan, but can be sold on the streets of America for $130,000/kilo. And synthetics like methamphetamine are even cheaper to manufacture costing approximately $300 to $500 per kilo to produce and sold on US streets for up to $60,000/kilo.

What keeps the drug industry going is its huge profit margins.  “The average drug trafficking organization could afford to lose 90% of its profit and still be profitable,” says Robert Stutman,a former DEA Agent. “Now think of the analogy. GM builds a million Chevrolets a year. Doesn’t sell 900,000 of them and still comes out profitable. That is a hell of a business, man. That is the dope business.”

The “war on drugs” has been lost billions of dollars ago, but the casualties go beyond financial losses. Millions of people have been incarcerated for low-level drug law violations, resulting in drastic racial disparities in the prison system, yet drug overdose, addiction and misuse are more prevalent than ever. Cost-effective and lifesaving interventions are not sufficiently available. The big problem, of course, is that the U.S. insists on treating a medical and social issue as a criminal one.


Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, http://www.leap.cc/

Bureau of Justice Statistics, http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbse&sid=40

TIMEhealth.com, http://healthland.time.com/2011/06/17/top-10-unhealthy-side-effects-of-the-war-on-drugs/

TIMEworld.com, http://world.time.com/2011/06/17/four-decades-later-its-time-to-scrap-the-dead-end-drug-war/


PBS.com, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/drugs/special/math.html

Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mobileweb/david-henry-sterry/mexican-drug-lord-officia_b_179596.html

Drugwarfacts.org, http://www.drugwarfacts.org/cms/

International Business Times, http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/164735/20110617/war-on-drugs-statistics-failure.htm


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