The U.S. War on Drugs by the numbers

September 1, 2009 | By | 11 Replies More

In the current edition of Esquire Magazine, John H. Richardson mentions the:

startling lack of controversy that greeted last week’s news that Mexico had suddenly decriminalized drugs — not just marijuana but also cocaine, LSD, and heroin.

In his article, Richardson describes the drug war in the U.S. with some staggering numbers. For instance, every year the U.S. “war on drugs” costs:

15,223 dead and $52.3 billion spent each year — which is, incidentally, almost enough to pay for universal health care.

One can’t help but think of Einstein’s well-used definition of insanity:  “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”


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Category: Good and Evil, law and order, Social justice

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (11)

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  1. Jay Fraz says:

    I sincerely believe that at some point in this country some people began thinking that if you make something legal, you make it 'morally acceptable'. This mentality has to stop. If everyone I've ever known to smoke a little weed was put in jail/prison, well, we could probably solve our unemployment crisis by hiring those left as security guards.

    But seriously, legalizing does NOT mean approving of a behavior, this is what we have to get into people's heads, this morality argument is the only argument we are up against.

    It feels like such an uphill battle sometimes. Save the money & death and legalize the soft stuff, with the way the economy is going it would probably help a lot of peoples daily lives.

    Of course I've always believed firmly that the party that legalizes marijuana will be the party that would rule for 20 or 30 years by default.

    I'm rambling now. Great piece, really shows how much we are wasting on this war on the wasted.

  2. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Erich- very timely post. A new wave of decriminalization and legalization of drugs has been sweeping around the world, and even police officers are speaking up and arguing that the time to legalize is now.

    In a bid to help reduce violence and related problems from the ongoing drug wars there, Mexico has decriminalized small amounts of drugs. They attempted to do the same thing back in 2006, but the resulting complaints from American officials caused them to abort that effort. The violent drug wars there have cost an estimated 11,000 lives.

    The Argentinian Supreme Court last week unanimously declared a law that provided for lengthy prison terms for drug use or possession unconstitutional.

    "Each individual adult is responsible for making decisions freely about their desired lifestyle without state interference," their ruling said. "Private conduct is allowed unless it constitutes a real danger or causes damage to property or the rights of others."

    In 2001, Portugal decriminalized the use and possession of all drugs, in favor of treatment and prevention programs. Their long-term results should be surprising to those who wish to maintain the status quo:

    The number of addicts registered in drug-substitution programmes has risen from 6,000 in 1999 to over 24,000 in 2008, reflecting a big rise in treatment (but not in drug use). Between 2001 and 2007 the number of Portuguese who say they have taken heroin at least once in their lives increased from just 1% to 1.1%. For most other drugs, the figures have fallen: Portugal has one of Europe’s lowest lifetime usage rates for cannabis. And most notably, heroin and other drug abuse has decreased among vulnerable younger age-groups…

    So why haven't we already legalized drugs? The one-word answer: money. From the federal funds that local police departments stand to gain to prosecute the drug war to the unconstrained growth in the prison industry, the drug war has an enormous economic impact. The private prisons industry is poised for continued rapid growth, as "the total US jail and prison population has represented an increasingly larger percentage of the total US civilian population" since at least 1980. The Esquire article you cite also quotes Neill Franklin, former commander in Maryland's State Bureau of Drug Enforcement:

    "In 1993, at the height of apartheid in South Africa, the incarceration of black males was 870 per 100,000. In 2004 in the U.S., for every 100,000 people we are sending 4,919 black males to prison. And the majority of those are for nonviolent drug offenses. But we'd rather send people to prison than give them information and treatment."

    And consider these statistics provided by NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws:

    Our country's war on drugs places great emphasis on arresting people for smoking marijuana. In the last decade, 6.5 million Americans have been arrested on marijuana charges, a greater number than the entire populations of Alaska, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming combined. In 2006, state and local law enforcement arrested 829,625 people for marijuana violations. Annual marijuana arrests have nearly tripled since the early 1990s, and is the highest number ever recorded by the FBI.

    As has been the case throughout the 1990s, the overwhelming majority of those charged with marijuana violations in 2006 — 738,915 Americans (89 %) — were for simple possession. The remaining 90,710 individuals were for "sale/manufacture", an FBI category which includes marijuana grown for personal use or purely medical purposes. These new FBI statistics indicate that one marijuana smoker is arrested every 38 seconds in America. Taken together, the total number of marijuana arrests for 2006 far exceeded the combined number of arrests for violent crimes, including murder, manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Brynn: Thank you for the comprehensive follow-up. Shocking numbers comparing our situation with imprisonment numbers during South African apartheid. Can you imaging putting this on a ballot: "Vote "yes" if you would want the police to arrest the equivalent of the entire populations of Alaska, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming for using marijuana over the next decade, rather than offering treatment, or just leaving these people alone.

    How about leaving people alone when they relax/space-out/whatever at home using alcohol, Prozac, cigarettes OR marijuana?

    Not every drug user is a meth user, BTW. These are true tragedies. But even here, are we making things better or worse to throw these people in prison rather than focusing on treatment?

    And yes, as Jay points out, some people will think I'm advocating the use of marijuana by advocating for decriminalization. Why do they think that? Do they think that my position also advocates the use of alcohol? Prozac? Same thing with bungee jumping: Just because I don't want it to be criminal doesn't mean I want to do it. I don't use any of these mind-altering substances (except I drink one beer or one glass of wine about once a month). Therefore, I'm not speaking as one who craves any of these products. My concerns are the tragedies described by the article to which I linked, including breaking up families, harshly stigmatizing users, massive waste of government revenue and corruption.

    I full well know that some people will abuse drugs if they are made illegal. But guess what? Millions of people are doing it already–they already have access to these drugs.

    Bottom line: Criminalizing drugs–declaring a "war" on drugs is creating many more problems than it's solving. Criminalizing drugs has injected terrible violence onto neighborhood streets, for example. And it has jammed our prisons full of many people who don't belong there.

    For more helpful information, check out the "related posts" under this post. And see this post regarding the harmlessness of marijuana.

  4. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Erich and Jay-

    You're both exactly right, any pragmatic examination of the issue is going to end with the conclusion that legalization is the only alternative at this point. As to the issue of potentially rising rates of abuse, the article from Esquire that was cited addressed it rather well:

    But what about the argument that drugs will spread like wildfire if we don't keep bringing down the hammer? "First, there's no concrete study to support such a belief — it's all completely speculation," Franklin insists. "So in my left hand I have all this speculation about what may happen to addiction rates, and then I look at my other hand and I see all these dead bodies that are actually fact, not speculation. And you're going to ask me to weigh the two? Second, if the addiction rate does go up, I'm going to have a lot of live addicts that I can cure. The direction we're going in now, I've got a lot of dead bodies."

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Brynn: I think another angle on the "more people will use drugs" is that, at SOME point we've got to have a bit more faith in people. I can safely say that most of the people I know who have no interest in drugs no will continue to have no interest in drugs. It wouldn't matter if they were legal or even free. On the other hand, millions of people who want drugs are already getting them.

      Still, many people would say decriminalization is a gamble, as though the current version of a "cure" isn't worse than the "disease."

  5. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    It should also be noted that decriminalization is not necessarily the same as legalization.

    Legalization would make possession, production and uses of the drugs legal. Decriminalising, on the other hand, would change most minor drug related infractions from criminal offenses to civil offense, where fines would be used insetad of mandatory jail time.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Niklaus: Thanks for the clarification. I'm certainly for decriminalization regarding all cases of drug possession for personal use. For some drugs (marijuana), I'm for legalization.

  6. Brynn Jacobs says:


    You're quite right, although a number of government programs might be deemed inappropriate if we were to start putting more faith in people.

    Niklaus- you're right, that's an important distinction. Although, many times decriminalization does not necessarily imply civil penalties either. The case of the Argentinian Supreme Court decriminalizing minor drug infractions is a case in point. The legislature there is apparently considering a bill that would provide legalization, but they wanted to wait pending the outcome of the Supreme Court case. Neither decriminalization or legalization would preclude offering alternatives such as treatment or prevention programs.

  7. Erika Price says:

    Good thoughts all around. I especially agree with Jay's point regarding the legal=moral myth.

    The one point I find a little tricky is the notion that there is no evidence drug use will increase if drugs are legalized/decriminalized. While I am all for evidence-based policy, it would not be unreasonable for someone to say that the burden is in proving legalization will not cause a spike in use, as society has more to "lose" in that scenario.

    And let us be honest and not-too-trusting of humanity. There are people who do not use drugs, or do not use drugs very often because they are worried about legal ramifications. Legalization would also be a cause of celebration to a great many casual drug users, as well as for any one who strong believes drugs should be legalized.

    Legalization probably would inspire a brief spike in use. I don't use drugs, but if marijuana were suddenly legalized and a large-scale celebration occurred, I would very likely be out in the streets with a pipe or a joint in my hand. I wouldn't develop a habit, I wouldn't slide into serious drug use, but I would take advantage of the novelty and the revelry, and so would many other people.

    But even if drug use goes up, who cares? There is strong evidence that an uptick in use would not lead to major, disastrous effects. The increase in use would surely mellow over time. And all of those new drug users would be consuming safe products, products they obtained in an legal market with light shed upon it, rather than a seedy black market promoting crime. Legalization is still justifiable under such a scenario.

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    Erika: I agree that there will be a bump in usage of safer drugs like marijuana if street drugs are decriminalized or legalized. On the other hand, use of drugs is often a display to define one's self with a "counter-culture." Perhaps many people using drugs to rebel will need to think of new ways to rebel.

    I agree with your bottom line point: Maybe drug use will increase if legalized. I do think it's worth a gamble given the horrible situation we have now. I don't think it can possibly be as bad as the current levels of street violence, the constant expensive abuse of our criminal justice system and the way our criminal system is ripping apart families by labeling non-violent drug users as "criminals."

  9. Tony Coyle says:

    we do have evidence regarding drug use & decriminalization.

    Portugal reported a drop in property crime and in 'minor-assaults' (related to theft) subsequent to their decriminalization of all drugs. They also reported significant improvement (drops) in recidivism (helped significantly by their 'drug user rehabilitation program' which is fully government funded).

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