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ETpro's avatar

The war on drugs, how much has it cost?

Asked by ETpro (34490points) June 17th, 2011

The War on Drugs was declared by President Richard Nixon June 17, 1971. Today is its 40th anniversary. Perhaps after 4 decades it’s time to take inventory. How are we faring? With all the foreign military aid, and crop spraying, and incarcerations of generations of our youth leading them from simple drug use to hardened criminals unable to find legitimate work upon their return to society, have we won? Can you even imagine the total cost in blood and treasure and squandered lives?

Are we winning? My impression is just the opposite. Drug use in America is far more prevalent today than it was in 1971. Would the drug cartels be enormous criminal enterprises able to directly challenge the military and police organizations of our neighbors to the South if we had managed this problem differently? Should we stay the course? Will things turn for the better in the next 40 years? Or is it finally time to try a different approach? How would you handle the problem?

Here’s a great article by former President Jimmy Carter covering his impressions then and now.

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15 Answers

incendiary_dan's avatar

The human cost is too much to be quantified.

Brian1946's avatar

According to this article that was posted about 13 months ago, the cost was $1 trillion as of then.

According to this one, “For the past 20 years, federal spending on drugs has exceeded $15 billion per year including the costs of imprisonment.”

So my answer is at least $1,015,000,000,000.

Ron_C's avatar

The cost of the “war on drugs” was more than $1 trillion in direct costs like policing, prosecution, and surveillance. That is to say nothing of the wasted time that police spent in schools on the DARE project, thousands, possibly millions of lives ruined for being imprisoned for possession, the billions of dollars of property confiscated, the rise of drug gangs and the death wrought in gang wars, border wars, and the murder of police and civilians. I’m sure that there is other damage that I forgot to list.

This “war” dwarfs the damage caused by the Vietnam war and the other illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

filmfann's avatar

Trying to hold back the public from using drugs is expensive. The cost of not doing it would be the fall of society.

incendiary_dan's avatar

@filmfann You going to back up that kind of claim? Specifically when there’s been a lot of evidence that the drug war likely increases drug use?

filmfann's avatar

@incendiary_dan It’s always difficult to prove that something that was done prevented something, like Obama’s spending prevented a depression. I am pretty sure it did, though.

Ron_C's avatar

@filmfann there is an exact proof that your claim is exactly backwards. We prohibited alcohol and bread criminal gangs, smuggling, increased prison population, and ruined the lives of thousands, maybe millions. The drug issue is exactly the same except that the results are even worse.

Whether you use drugs is an issue between you, your doctor, and your insurance agent, not the government.

ETpro's avatar

@incendiary_dan I totally agree. There are cost areas that would be extremely difficult to quantify, but are enormous.

@Brian1946 That’s direct cost, and that’s a very large sum. But how many young people have had their entire lives ruined, done hard time in prison, learned to be a hardened criminal, and come out to a world that now legally discriminates against them in voting rights, job opportunities, housing, etc? Facing this, how many people who would have grown up to be productive, tax-paying members of society have instead ended up career criminals? The cost of that is the part that would be terribly difficult to calculate, but may be 2 times the direct costs.

@Ron_C Exactly. The indirect, hard to track costs have to be huge.

@filmfann There have been drug using cultures throughout the centuries. I second @incendiary_dan‘s call to prove that contention. know of no instance where they have disintegrated due to their use of drugs. I think you need to prove that case. We should always approach law as we do medicine. The disease has to demonstrably be more harmful than the cure. In our current approach to drug regulation, it appears to me that the exact opposite is the case. @Ron_C has a strong rebuttal.

YARNLADY's avatar

It has cost me zero. All my taxes go to pay for Social Security, and now I am reaping the benefits. Someone else must have paid for it, not me.

ETpro's avatar

@YARNLADY That’s comforting self talk, true or not.

LuckyGuy's avatar

I can see where it is cheaper and safer for society to lock up a persisitant, violent drug user.
Here are my numbers and assumptions:
Imagine a drug user with a ”$300/day habit” (I’ve heard as high as $500) Let’s use the number $200. OK. Now, where is he going to get $200? He’s probably not holding down a good job like a congressman so he has to get it some way. He can’t hook so the likely choice is robbery or burglary. Let’s say he breaks into only one home today to get the money. Cost of door or window repair: $400. Stolen goods: cost $2000 replacement value when new but only $200 when sold hot. The cost of police to “investigate”: 4 man hours, $300. Not counting pain and suffering and reduced property values the guy’s single day outside cost society 400+2000+300 = $2600. (Feel free to adjust the numbers if you don’t like my assumptions.)

Keeping the guy in prison at $50,000 per year cost: $150 per day.

Multiply that by the number of violent crackheads x 365 x number of years and you get a big number. Maybe bigger than the “War on drugs”. I have no way to tell.

I agree there are lots of nonviolent drug users that do not rob other people nor steal to support their habit. It is a waste to lock them up and treat them the same way. It might even be considered profiling.

So, following my rule that you can’t complain unless you offer solutions, here are mine:
Proposal #1 We already have laws like DWI whereby if you have a accident the penatly is much greater if you were found to be under the influence. There are gun laws that ratchet up minor crimes to felonies if firearms are involved. How about adding drug use to property crimes? If you are on drugs the crime no matter how small is automatically elevated to a felony.
Taking someone’s wallet while on drugs would be considered a serious as if you were carrying a firearm.

Proposal #2. All recipients receiving public assistance for longer than 8 months must submit to drug testing between the 8th month and one year to have such benefits extended beyond the one year. After one year, drug testing will be mandatory 4 tests per year. If drugs are found, the person is ineligible for 4 years.
(Again, feel free to play with the numbers.)

By the way how does a drug user support a $300/habit?

TexasDude's avatar

Countless lives, astronomical amounts of tax dollars, and arguably worst of all, the ongoing erosion of liberty.

Oh, and no-knock warrants where former Marines get pumped full of lead and little girls get flashbanged, and people’s pets get shot are an unfortunate side effect as well.

incendiary_dan's avatar

Not to mention the (barely) covert continuation of Jim Crow.

Ron_C's avatar

@worriedguy I like your proposal especially because it puts drug use directly at the feet of the user. We don’t need drug searches, or shoot-outs at the border. Most importantly, we don’t need new laws just a “drug enhancement” for existing ones. Better yet, there would be no reason to jail a person that did nothing but possess a few drugs or paraphernalia.

Every court date in our county, I read that a person was in jailed and fined for possessing “drug paraphernalia”, no drugs just paraphernalia. I have a set of forceps, they are considered by some of my drug using friends as roach clips. I use them to handle small parts. I hate the thought that I could be arrested and jailed because of a policeman’s interpretation of my tool box.

ETpro's avatar

@worriedguy Yes. Inforce criminal behavior and add to the penalty if it is driven by drug use. But leave those who use drugs responsibly alone.

@incendiary_dan Great point. Blacks make up about 12% of the population but the majority of the prison population incarcerated for drug posession. Studies show drug use is about equal in white and black communities. So drug laws are being used as a back-door way to destroy black youth.

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