Forty years of failure: The true cost of the war on drugs
The drug policy of the United States has a forty year legacy of failure. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the annual number of arrests for drugs in the U.S. has more than quadrupled from just around 300 million in 1970 to almost 1.8 billion drug in 2006 (see table 1). Despite this sharp increase in arrests, the illegal drug trade has flourished into an international business worth hundreds of billions of dollars (Pollard para 4). These arrests also cause a domino effect of increased costs for the United States police, courts, and prison systems. The U.S. has wasted trillions of dollars without getting any closer to ending drug use (Suddath para 1). As our nation faces the current financial recession, this lack of results over the past four decades makes it fiscally irresponsible to continue with the War on Drugs.
In 1973, President Nixon announced “an all out global war on the drug menace,” with the creation of the Drug Enforcement Agency (Suddath para 3). This is a war that has gone on to cost the U.S $2.5 trillion, over the past forty years, with still no end in sight (Suddath para 1). Former drug czar under President Clinton, Gen. Barry McCaffrey referred to the war on drugs as, “a war without a clear enemy. Anything waged against a shapeless, intangible noun can never truly be won” (Suddath para 1).
Table 1 Drug Arrests By Age
Source: Dept. of Justice. Office of Justice Programs. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Drugs and Crime Facts. Washington: U.S. Dept. of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2011. Web. 5 Apr 2012.
Those in support of the war on drugs argue that prohibition protects children from the dangers of drug use, but the government losses the ability to impose a minimum age of sale when they outlaw a substance. Making a substance illegal simply creates a place for it on the black market were sales continue without regulation. A survey by the National Center on Addiction And Substance Abuse at Columbia University reports that teens find it easier to buy marijuana than alcohol and prescription drugs (p25.) This is evidence that making a substance contraband results in fewer barriers for underage consumption while making it illegal for tax paying adults to make an informed decision about personal use.
The number of drug-related arrests has continued to rise since the DEA began operation in 1973, but not in a balance manner (see table 1.). The number of people arrested each year for possession has risen sharply compared to arrests for sales and manufacturing which has increased at a much slower rate (see table 2). In addition to disproportionately rate at which drug users are arrested compared to drug dealers, for the past twenty two years, over half of the inmates in federal prisons are non violent drug offenders (U.S. White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, p63). This imbalance shows that the current policy of prohibition provides little deterrent for the illegal drug industry. Instead of curtailing the sale of drugs, the DEA has provided the US court system with the burden of prosecuting otherwise law abiding citizens because who made the choice to use drugs. Table 2 Number of Arrests, by Type of Drug Law Violations, 1982-2007 Source: Dept. of Justice. Office of Justice Programs. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Drugs and Crime Facts. Washington: U.S. Dept. of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2011. Web. 5 Apr 2012.
In addition to losing the ability to regulate the sale of a substance, when a government bans a drug, they also forfeit revenue from taxing its sale. The United Nations estimates the sale illegal drugs generated $321 billion globally in 2003 (Pollard para 4). The UN estimates 44% of these sales, $141.25 billion, were in North America (Pollard para 9). This is a substantial source of tax revenue that the government sacrifices in the name of the war on drugs, often while turning otherwise tax paying and law abiding citizens into criminals.
A study by the Cato Institute estimates that ending the prohibition of drugs would save roughly $41.3 billion per year, $25.7 billion would be saved by state and local governments, with $15.6 billion saved by the federal government (Miron, and Waldock page 6). Approximately $8.7 billion of the savings would result from legalization of marijuana and $32.6 billion from legalization of other drugs. The study also figures that drug legalization would result in $46.7 billion of tax revenue annually, if legal drugs are taxed at similar rates to alcohol and tobacco (Miron, and Waldock p6). Between the money saved by the legal system and tax income, the total impact of drug legalization would be around $88 billion annually (Miron, and Waldock p6). This massive price tag makes the cost of the war on drugs unbearable considering the state of out national economy.
Supporters of the War on Drugs argue that the negative effects of drug addiction are too great to allowing legalization. According to an estimate by the United Nations, less then ten percent of the 250 million illegal drug users around the world are classified as dependent (Nichols para 11). This indicates that only a small fraction of the global population are suffering from addiction to an illegal drug. The cost of prohibition is too high to justify protecting a small segment of the population from themselves. The money spent to prohibit drug use would be better spent on treatment and education instead of restricting the freedom of tax paying adults.
After forty years of failure, it is hard not to argue that a change is needed in the United States Drug Policy. The model of prohibition has failed much like it did with alcohol under the Eighteenth Amendment and the solution is simple, all drugs need to be legalized. Legalized drugs could be manufactured in compliance with government regulation and sold in state controlled outlets like the ABC stores in Virginia. Income made from the sale of drugs would no longer fund organized crime. Taxes from the regulated sales of drugs could be used towards treatment programs and the government could save billions of dollars annually.
Miron, J. A., and Katherine Waldock. "The budgetary impact of ending drug prohibition." CATO
Institute, 2010. Web. 7 Apr 2012.
National Center on Addiction And Substance Abuse at Columbia University. National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XIII: Teens and Parents. New York: 2008. Web. 7 Apr 2012
Nichols, M.. "Global War on Drugs a Failure High-Level Panel Says." Reuters. 2011. Web. 7
Pollard, Niklas . "UN reports put world's illicit drug trade at estimated $321b." Globe News
Paper Company, 2005. Web. 5 Apr 2012.
Suddath, C.. "The war on drugs." Time magazine. Time Magazine, 2009. Web. 5 Apr 2012.
United States. Dept. of Justice. Office of Justice Programs. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Drugs
and Crime Facts. Washington: U.S. Dept. of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of
Justice Statistics, 2011. Web. 5 Apr 2012.
--- White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. 2011 National Drug Control
Strategy Data Supplement. Washington: U.S. White House Office of National Drug Control
Policy, 2011. Web. 5 Apr 2012.