How Much of Your Money Is Wasted in the War on Drugs

Enforcing the drug control system costs at least $100 billion a year.

Federal spending in the United States alone totals around $15 billion annually and according to one estimate, state and local drug-related criminal justice expenditures amount to $25.7 billion.

Many other cash-strapped governments spend hundreds of millions to billions of dollars each year on drug enforcement.

These figures are revealed in a new Count the Costs briefing—a collaborative project tallying the human and economic costs of the war on drugs—titled Wasting Billions, Undermining Economies.

While the sheer enormity of these numbers is shocking enough, it is made all the more striking by the fact that such vast expenditures have accomplished so little. Drug prices, it appears, have been unaffected by law enforcement measures.

The report states: “Despite increased resources directed to supply-side enforcement, evidence suggests that drug prices, while remaining far higher than legal commodities, have decreased over the past three decades. From 1990 to 2005, for instance, the wholesale price of heroin fell by 77 percent in Europe and 71 percent in the US.”

Instead, the results are mass incarceration and violence that come with immense human and economic costs.

The report adds: “In the United States, for example, the number of people imprisoned for drug offences has risen from approximately 38,000 to more than 500,000 in the last four decades. The lost productivity of this population was estimated by the [US Office of National Drug Control Policy] in 2004 at approximately $40 billion annually.”

The report is full of damning statistics that illustrate the economic failure of the war on drugs. Please read the full briefing and share with your networks. 

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Does the lost productivity figure include the children put into foster care & psych services because a parent has been thrown into jail, or the pain and suffering of parents and other family members of the incarcerated?

Dear Vickie,

No, the number does not but read the report as it does look at some of these things.

Quantifying the precise amount of damage financially is almost impossible. Consider violence-plagued regions and the opportunity costs lost as businesses will reconsider putting offices there. Or as you ask -- the damage done to children whose lives may be changed forever due to cruel drug laws. how do we even begin to count that?

The spirit of your question does show that the most vicious impacts are on people's lives.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

As the clearinghouse for Federal drug data, we know this report is misleading. (Go to for more.)

While gaining a clear picture of the illegal drug market is always a challenge, a vast array of data, research, and surveys reveal long-term trends and shed valuable light on the nature and scope of the drug problem in America. The evidence presented by these sources is vital in our work to meet the President’s mandate of promoting policies grounded in science and research.

So what do the data show? Simply put, our national drug problem is substantially smaller than it used to be, and progress continues to be made.

Here’s the evidence:

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health – the Nation’s largest, longest-running, and most comprehensive survey on drug use – the overall rate of drug use in America has dropped by roughly 30 percent over the past three decades.
More recently (since 2006), the number of past month (current) users of any illicit drug other than marijuana has dropped 16 percent. Driving this decline have been decreases in the number of current users of cocaine (44 percent), meth (40 percent), and prescription drugs (14 percent).
The Monitoring the Future study, the most important youth survey on drug use in America, has shown that the overall rate of illicit drug use among high school seniors has fallen by 35 percent since 1979.
The same survey of youth drug use reports that the perceived availability of cocaine among high school seniors has dropped by nearly 50 percent since its peak in 1989.
According to STRIDE (System to Retrieve Information from Drug Evidence) – law enforcement’s largest forensic laboratory database – cocaine purity over the past few years dropped to levels not seen since reporting began in 1981, indicative of a significant disruption in the U.S. cocaine market. In response, the number of current cocaine users in 2011 dropped significantly from levels in 2002 through 2008.
According to the United Nations, “cocaine consumption has fallen significantly in the United States in the past few years. The retail value of the US cocaine market has declined by about two thirds in the 1990s, and by about one quarter in the past decade.”
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, unintentional overdose deaths in the U.S. related to cocaine dropped 41% from 6,726 in 2006 to 3,988 in 2009, the year for which the most recent data are available.
Cocaine production in Colombia – the source of most cocaine consumed in America – has plummeted by over 70 percent since 2001.
Again, these facts are proof that we are not powerless against the drug problem in America. As the President himself has noted, we have successfully made a difference in other areas, like smoking and drunk driving, so there’s no reason to think we cannot continue to achieve the same success with illegal drugs. Our challenge, it’s worth pointing out, is not that we are unable to reduce drug use; indeed, we have made great strides in that effort. The challenge is that rates of drug use are still too high.

Drug use and its consequences continue to place too many obstacles in the way of young people working to achieve their full potential. It still drives violent crime in our neighborhoods, in our cities, and throughout our hemisphere. It still fosters substance use disorders that tear families apart and end too many lives. As we engage in this important national conversation about how best to protect public health and safety in America, we must remain focused on using science and research – not ideology or dogma – as our guide in this national discussion.

Cocaine production just shifted to Peru and other countries. The Drug was is directly responsible for the violent crime associated with drugs. If drugs weren't illegal and was sold in stores it would be purer and cheaper, there would be less overdoses, less crime associated with getting the money to buy drugs, less violence etc. The drug war is a giant sham. Every year drugs get purer, cheaper and easier to obtain. The reason for the drop in cocaine purity levels is this most of the cocaine sold in the US comes thru Mexico and is shipped here by the Narco traffickers. They cut the cocaine with speed because it is cheaper, easier to obtain since they manufacture it. and more addictive. The war on drugs has caused far more death and misery than the drugs themselves. Portugal has reported a sharp decrease in drug use and crime since drugs were legalized. Marijuana is almost completely harmless except to young teens. When you group marijuana in with cocaine, speed and heroin and tell kids it's bad for you, these kids already know marijuana is virtually harmless so they know they are being lied to and begin to wonder if maybe you were lying about the other drugs as well. Face the face the drug war is a miserable failure and has caused more death and misery since the 1980's than the drugs could have caused in 10 thousand years. Nice try tho.

Dear Rafael,

Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughtful comments.

While I certainly welcome the discussion I do have to disagree with some of what you say.

The US has had some successes but drug use – especially among young people -- is much higher than in many countries that have not saddled their young people with life-alerting criminal records.

Drug use has been declining in the US since the late 70s – long before the US introduced its most draconian penalties. In other words, we didn’t have to lock up 2.3 million people to achieve the same results.

We can argue endlessly about different statistics from different countries but the simple fact is that drug use in the US is still higher than in many of the more so-called “lenient countries”.

And ultimately compared to many other developed countries the US has worse problematic drug use or the adverse consequences of drugs, including crime and drug-related health epidemics like HIV.

I will agree that on balance drug education is improving (with exceptions). Perhaps that may be driving down some drug use. That is commendable. But that is completely separate from the spree of incarceration and heavy-handed law enforcement costs.

You also point to Colombia as a success story. That I find a little hard to stomach.

Colombia’s drug war led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people and incredible bloodshed. If that is success what does failure look like?

And, in the end, what did we get for it. Many of the drug-related activities were only displaced to Mexico – a phenomenon known as the “balloon effect.”

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime describes the balloon effect as “squeezing (by tighter controls) one place [which] produces a swelling (namely, an increase) in another place, though it may well be accompanied by an overall reduction. This can be historically documented over the last half century, in so many theatres around the world … Cocaine production trends in the Andean countries show a similar dynamic: as supply was reduced in Peru and Bolivia, in the second half of the 1990s it displaced to Colombia, again as a complement to insurgency and violence.”

We’re now seeing a lot of these things moving to Mexico and Central America.

Finally, if Colombia is such a success why is its government leading the calls for a debate on new approaches?

I am sincerely grateful for your comments because the data can be debated and the evidence can tell us many things. In my opinion the evidence shows a ghastly (and expensive) failure.

I’m sure the authors of the report will likely chime in with some comments of their own.

Thank you again

As one of the contributors to the briefing I’m keen to hear more specifically what you feel is 'misleading'. We have taken care to highlight methodological issues and includes caveats on limitations with the data presented, and referenced all statistics. The count the costs initiative is looking at global trends - not just the USA, and uses a range of national and regional examples.

In terms of your statistics, six are on cocaine and two on use more generally. Cocaine use has undeniably fallen since its late 70s peak - this is not disputed. But by focusing on this one drug where there has been apparent success in terms of reduced use, you have avoided other less flattering trends that might suggest the situation is somewhat more complex than your presentation suggests.

Looking at the stats provided by the ONDCP National Drug Control Strategy Data Supplement 2012 we can see that use of any illegal drugs and use of cocaine specifically has notably fallen since the first data made available in 1979. See this chart for example from p.20: . But if we do not go from this historic high starting point however – instead using, say, 1988 as a baseline instead, the impact of the following years of enforcement to 2010 seems somewhat less impressive. We see that rates of current use on any drug in fact rose between 1988 and 2010 (a 22 year enforcement span) from 7.7 to 8.9%, current use of marijuana rises from 6.2 to 6.9%, and current heroin use 0.9 to 1.6%. If we want to deploy the old % of a % trick these are rises of 15% (any drug), 11% (marijuana) and 77% for heroin.

Of the drugs selected for this table (covering the full period – methamphetamine stats only begin in 2002) only cocaine use, that you have focused on, has fallen over this period; for the record by 62% from 1.6 to 0.6. If we were, perhaps somewhat sneakily, to suggest going from 2 years later in 1990 when use was 0.9% we would instead have seen a drop in use of a more modest 30% over the following 20 years

Your unquestionably positive cocaine story however ignores the emergence and subsequent partial retreat of methamphetamine use during this period, likewise MDMA (both equally illegal to cocaine of ccourse). Further more you make no mention here of the rise in non-medical use of prescription drugs and Novel Psychoactive Drugs (NPS). Data is only provided by the ONDCP for the former since 2002 – at around 6.4% (or in 2010 16million users) including around 1 million (0.4%) past month non medical prescription stimulant users(p.21). I’ve not found any official prevalence data available for NPS like ‘bath salts’ or ‘spice’ but anecdotal evidence and calls to poisons units etc. suggest that these have become widely used in the past 2 or 3 years.

On price and purity of cocaine, this table from the ONDCP National Drug Control Strategy Data Supplement 2011 shows that price per pure gram (for purchases of less than 2 grams) fell from a high point of $691 in 1982 to $184 in 2009 – a fall of 86%. For purchases of 10-50 grams prices fell from $335 in 1981 to $65 in 2009 (an 80% price drop). Purity, as you correctly note has come down in the last few years – but for under 2 gram purchases it is still 8% high in 2009 than it was 28 years previously in 1981 (48% and 41%), and for most of the intervening years it has been well over in the 60%.

What can we conclude from all the above

1. Focusing on one drug during one select time period (can give an overly flattering impression of overall impacts – the actual picture is more complex.

2. Drug use seems to rise and fall independently of enforcement patterns – with different drugs rising and falling at the same time

3. In the case of cocaine use has fallen dramatically at the same time as price falling dramatically. This suggest that firstly that the fall in use had little or nothing to do with enforcement (that seeks to increase price by restricting supply), and secondly, we cannot make standard economic assumptions about price and use when it comes to drugs. Clearly there are other more important cultural and social phenomena in play. There is pitifully little evidence to support a significant deterrent effect associated with user level enforcement but overwhelming evidence that if sufficient demand exists the profit opportunity it creates will mean criminal entrepreneurs will find a way to meet it.

4. Demand for stimulants seems to have moved from cocaine to other drugs which have themselves come into and sometimes gone out of fashion. If there is an enforcement related restriction on supply (and that is moot beyond temporary market disruptions) the likely impact is displacement to other drugs (one of the unintended consequences of enforcement identified by the UNODC in the 2008 World Drug Report). The emergence of bath salts and rising popularity of prescription stimulants is just the most recent manifestation of this phenomenon. Some of these are legal, some quasi-legal, some schedule 1. Legal status and enforcement intensity seem to be, at best, marginal factors in shaping demand – a reality the ONDCP and US drug enforcement agencies seem entirely unwilling to face.

A couple of other pedantic points:

It is misleading to point to the fall in production in Colombia without also highlighting the parallel rise in production (and increased outputs per acre) elsewhere in Andean region that have meant overall regional production has not changed significantly. We know from experience of the last few decades that if supply is restricted prices rise, and new players soon enter the market to exploit them – simple supply and demand economics in what is an essentially unregulated free market populated by flexible criminal entrepreneurs. This is the ‘balloon effect’ – another unintended consequence identified in the 2008 UNODC World Drug Report (along with the creation of a vast criminal market)

It also seems rather strange to introduce one of your falling-cocaine-use stats with ‘according to the UN’ when the UN are only using data provided to them by the Annual Report Questionnaires , that are filled in by the ONDCP.

Finally – and perhaps most importantly, you have entirely missed the point of the Count the Costs initiative. You have told one rather rose tinted side of the story with a few cherry picked stats (and made some gigantic unsupported inferences about the impacts of enforcement policy from them), whilst completely ignoring the question; At what cost? Take the time to read the Alternative World Drug Report which chronicles the costs of the war on drugs you choose not to talk about. The economics briefing is just one briefing/chapter (other cover human rights, public health, crime, stigma and discrimination, development and security, and environmental costs).
I’d be happy to hear your thoughts.

Dear Rafael, I will look at the resource you mention, but based on real-life observations, it is utterly unbelievable that drug use has dipped 30%, especially in the young demographic. The war on drugs is devastating communities and has been for decades. It's in fathomable that we have hundreds of billions of dollars to spend on mass incarceration and enhanced control when better education and community activities, among others, will do so much more for our country. I wonder if you take into account the highly addictive prescription drugs which are much worse than any street drug out there.

I am still digesting all this, but offer these two comments: First, it would be interesting to know for sure that, of the people who might, in theory at least, have taken cocaine but for the changes that brought about the drop in its use - how many of these didn't take cocaine because they couldn't find a supply, or couldn't find a sufficiently pure supply. It seems to me, and I'm guessing, that that is unlikely to be the reason for their choice not to use. Maybe we should ask a large number of people in the 'right' age group and demographic population, and see what they can tell us. I am a huge and long-standing sceptic about the value of waging war on drugs. It seems to deteriorate into a war on young people - the very people who may be using drugs to help them bear and cope with circumstances in their lives that could perhaps be helped, even in these straitened times, if money were not being diverted to the war on drugs...
Secondly, I noted the comment that drug education might be 'driving down' drug use at least at some levels. I beg to differ. In England, at least, and I suspect the US education pattern is not hugely different, there are few if any specialist teachers who understand how to teach drug education. And the status of the subject is low and non-statutory, Further, it is not intended (at least, not by people who know much about it) that drug should of itself change behaviour. Far from it. It is intended to skill young people, bolster their belief in their own value, their understanding of their responsibility for their own health and safety, and prepare them for making their own decisions and to be ready to be held accountable for them. Drug education, when taught well, takes account, of rules, laws and social expectations, but does not attempt to undermine the young persons' confidence in their own ability to manage in a world where there are drugs, including legal illegal and medicinal ones. Drug education is unwise if it issues injunctions that some will see as a challenge, nor are the laws of the land a helpful principal focus. Drug use of any sort is principally a health issue, and the facets of drug education that prepare young people to look after themselves amount, in combination, to a responsibility issue.

I appreciate the high level discussion that has been enjoyed on this topic so far. I hope my comments, from the front of the war are not soiled simply because I am a self medicating drug user that would be simply jailed and another statistic in the war on drugs. The war on drugs is this: a war on the American people at large. Very few drug abusers have any use for a single word that has been said so far and simply continue day by day to use their drug of choice, hiding their use, their stashes, their purchases etc...
Many of the addicts that are self deluded enough to believe that they are not illegal drug users are the ones prescribed a plethora of feel good medications because they are sad, or anxious, or in my case a legitimate case of ADHD.
I have been diagnosed and have lived with my "there is something wrong with me" ADHD for 40 years this year. 40 years ago, the first and only treatment offered my parents and me? Ritalin. Give a seven year old boy speed. Not a pure "ine" speed, but none-the-less speed. I have been taking a form of speed or another, mostly prescribed my entire adult life.
Am I an addict? I would say so, as functioning without my prescriptions forced me into a world I never knew existed, and one I hope you never have to experience for yourselves.
Fast forward, bad economy, lost work, no real employment available, and I have no insurance. What to do? My script costs $397 per month without insurance. That is for one script. I need two. The effect of taking speed for most of my life has brought on a high level of tolerance and my metabolic rate is too high for a standard dosage. I need a second script that costs $300 flat. $750 for legal medication to assist me with a real medical condition. Unfortunately, I can't afford that. I spend about a little under half of that on the illegal drug market. About 350 a month. I am not a heavy user, I self medicate and keep my dosages the same day by day. It's not prescription drugs that I am getting, because they run about 5 times the price on the street, I have prescribed myself Methamphetamine.
One drug that you may or may not be aware of for treatment of my condition is named Desoxyn. This is pharmaceutical grade, yep, methamphetamine. It also was the prescription that worked best for me and I have that documented by three different medical providers... however I am unable to obtain that prescription in Arizona because we are a "border state".
All of this is simply to allow that I am very well spoken for a group of individuals that would rather not speak. The Meth addict. 40 percent DECREASE? In what drug induced dream was that statistic made up? There is NO way that methamphetamine use has dropped by close to half in this country. I hate to think that it just might have INCREASED by 40 percent and would easily explain the drop of cocaine use in this country. I know meth users, I know coke users, I know pot smokers, I know every walk of life that uses, abuses, is addicted to and love/hate/loves their drug of choice. Cocaine is considered a HUGE waste of money. Why smoke a crack rock and be high for 5 minutes when you can smoke a rock of "G" (meth) and be high for 5 hours? When I started my decline into the meth word, somewhere in 1996, black people, generally, were not smoking G. It was a "white boy" drug. Not today. I know just as many black users of meth as I do white. I have been through the river of drug use for a long time, and even though I don't get "high" on speed. I am just as addicted as the next person. Methamphetamine is not just a dirty low-life user problem. I have cavorted with doctors, not just one, multiple. I have gotten "high" with police officers. I had a Judge that would buy methamphetamine from the same person I did, until I offered him a better price. I have smoked with bikers, bikers that own large businesses. Legit businesses. I've smoked with the low life. I have seen what I never wanted to see. I am a soldier fighting the war on drugs, but not because I want to be.
Take my words for what they are worth. I could fill your eyes with truthful stories about what drug addiction and the war on the addicts has caused. Take 15 billion dollars and put it into making our lives better, instead of a lot more terrifying and I bet you convert your 40 percent of Meth users. You have no idea how few users want to continue to use... but what other option is there? Put 15 billion dollars into options for us "addicts" and you will take away our insatiable desire for drugs. Keep lying and spending on convictions and punishments and just like every psychological study I can remember has shown, you won't change the users, just the place they use. There are lots of drugs in Jail, prison... just more expensive and more violence involved. Such a great way to spend money on something you couldn't understand if you studied it for the rest of your life.

I was shown a video in elementary about what cocaine does to your body.....they simply said, "you will die of a heart attack." just as every commercial about marijuana states that, if you use it, you will hit someone with your car or someone will drown in a pool. misguided information is the reason for experimenting with different drugs. people telling numerous exaggerations is why kids explore to different drugs.....not because marijuana is a "gateway drug."

In Canada, The Le Daine Commission said it all forty years ago. Legalize Maijuana! If The Government had listened to the commission they struck, the country could have been debt free and there would be thousands of people who would have been spared a prison term and prison records. The police could have been out working on stopping and preventing crime.
There are always those who feel they know best how everyone should live their lives. Become a libertarian and except our differences. Live the life you choose and let others choose the life they want. Be tolerant to others choices and leave them alone as long as they do no direct harm to others.
That's what a free country means to me.

One issue that should is the financial benefit associated with the use of marijuana in particular.Police officers are evaluated by the number of collars they make and drug possession for personal use is the easiest method of increasing your numbers.Federal money flows directly to law enforcement agencies around the country that police departments would sorely miss if marijuana were universally legalized.The biggest long term problem is that arrests are made most often in poor communities and impact minority populations more dramatically than other groups.This leads to greater imprisonment and the inability to find work once you have a criminal record.In Louisiana if you are arrested three times with a joint you receive 20 years in jail.All of these social harms are tied to this stupid policy called the war on drugs.

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All though i am only 15 my experience of life has been revealing and even though this doesnt exactly pertain to the subject at hand reading this - as amazingly informative as it is - still reminds me of all the poverty and insane amounts of drug abuse in flint,MI my home town and the governments seeming lack of "lending a helping hand."

If they stopped and decriminalized all drugs then they would have more money for addiction help,poverty,starving people etc... They waste so much money on the war on drugs when the war its never gonna stop.You lose one police officer or one drug dealer or user and theres gonna be another one to take there place.I see the government as the biggest waste of money. The way to get votes is to help waste money on the war on what a horrible country the land of the free the "american dream" Where did that go?

the law inforcement only gets there budget for the war on drugs if they do the same or more bust for drugs every year.So thats why they have police setting up people everyday just so they can get there cut of the money from the government.Look at ex police officer barry cooper and how he sets up police that plant drugs on drug dealers. They "police and government" are worse the the drug dealers.The government knows how to stop the drugs and using of them.Look at Portugal they did it so why aren't we learning from other countries?Because its all about the money drugs bring in. The government wants you to buy there drugs where they make money off of and what the regulate.You see the comercials, they name of a ton of symptoms and untill they name one and you say oh I got wow its so funny to sit and look at whats happened over the years.Since what the 1970s crime rate and prision percent was at a steady level untill the war on drugs came and its been going up with not even looking like its gonna come down.What a mess this country has made

In years past that is going back to the 1980s and 1990s there were reports from the newscast "Frontline", that in more then half the state's in the U.S.A. there was more financial profit being generated from the sale of illegal drugs then all the businesses combined in those said states. If that being even close to accurate an overall nationwide picture has emerged in that the presense, for better or worse, and sale of illegal of illegal drugs is a very intergrated and necessary establishment within the marketplace of America. Are such estimates of revenue true today in the 2016 marketplace of America? In 2015 through the I.R.S. our gross national product was approx. 15.2 trillion dollars (China was second globally at approx. 6.1 trillion dollars) and if the past trend of more profit in more then half the state's from illegal drugs hold close to accurate at all are we as consumers and citizens alike somehow responsible for exspenditure and monetary gain of what is apparently a best guess scenario of we the people are moving and grooving to the tune of approx. 15.2 trillion dollars in overall sale and consumption of illegal drugs!? Can anybody with any degree of accuracy at the present explain such numbers from drugs in the U.S.A.? And if so it is essential to hear in mind that in essence the gross national product does totally reflect how much money is flowing through our economy but also that the underground market for illegal drugs is funding out one citizens as we fight them in the obsurd war on drugs (2016 costs for the war on drugs 30 billion plus and resulting in only 8,000 plus of our own citizens incarcerated translated to a cost of approx. 3,750,000.00 per person incarcerated an embarrassing waste of money for an even less attractive result) and in addition we in America are funding other countries in our sale and use of illegal drugs. Is legalization feasible without economic problems at possibly global proportions and in all earnestness is the war on drugs that which exists that ultimately provides no victory at all and does more to sensationism of various battles in the war on drugs that can not ever truly be won?

Our prisons are full of low level drug "criminal" users. The price of illegal drugs is down. Due to an increase in supply.
The war on drugs is a waste of money and injures the people of the USA.
The solution? Legalize and TAX it's sale.
Placing our young in prison results in "ex-cons". Those "ex-cons" are our children, friends and neighbors.


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