The Real Costs of Drug War
vs Costs of Drug Use

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Drug War Costs Vs Drug Use Costs ($billions)
  Cost of Drug War1 Cost of Drug Use
Year Total Cost Sub-total % of Total Sub-total % of Total
1992 $112.3 $80.5 71.7 $31.8 28.3
1993 $139.2 $95.9 68.9 $43.3 31.1
1994 $144.2 $100.5 69.7 $43.7 30.3
1995 $145.4 $106.8 73.4 $38.6 26.6
1996 $150.9 $115.6 76.6 $35.3 23.4
1997 $155.8 $120.4 77.3 $35.4 22.7
1998 $160.6 $125.2 77.9 $35.4 22.1
1999 $167.6 $131.1 78.2 $36.5 21.8
2000 $173.9 $136.2 78.3 $37.7 21.7
Grand Totals $1,349.9* $1,012.2* 74.9 $337.7 25.1

* - that's over one trillion dollars people!

1 - Cost of Drug War includes the federal drug budget (minus the already included "supply reduction" costs reflected in the ONDCP study).

Shocked? I hope so. If we divide the alledged, assumed, and in some cases flat out invented "costs" of drug use in America, the picture that emerges is a lot different than the one handed to us by the ONDCP study from which all the data presented in this report is taken.

First, here's a listing dividing the costs of drug use into two piles:

  • the costs of drug use

    • Health Care Costs
    • Premature Death
    • Institutionalization/Hospitalization
    • Victims Productivity
    • Crime Victims Property Damage
    • Social Welfare

  • the costs of trying to stop drug use

    • Lost Wages Due to Incarceration
    • Police Services
    • Legal System Costs
    • State and Federal Corrections
    • Local Corrections
    • Federal Anti-drug Budget
    • Private Legal Costs
    • Drug Abuse Related Illness
    • Crime Careers

Costs of Drug Use

Health Care Costs - 60% of health care costs are accounted for by Community-Based Treatment programs and treating those HIV/AIDS patients claimed as drug-related. In 2000, this total was estimated at approximately $9 billion.

Premature Death - frankly, this is a "bogus" cost, as it's based on all deaths called drug-related (even those caused by pharmaceuticals), but mostly because it is an estimate of lifetime earnings lost by those who died. To keep it in perspective would require that this number be prorated to cover the extended number of years the person may have otherwise been alive.

Institutionalization/Hospitalization - these costs are said to be the cost in lost earnings of those in drug treatment programs.

Victim's Productivity - the cost of lost wages by victims of drug-related crime.

Crime victim's property damage - the cost of damage done to the property of the victims of drug-related crime

Social Welfare - even though the ONDCP study makes the claim that those convicted of drug offenses are not eligible to get such aid, they claim it as a cost.

Costs of Drug War

Lost Wages Due to Incarceration - if these people were in jail for drug-law only violations (which represent up to 80% of all drug-related crimes) this money can only be counted as a cost of drug war. Were the drugs legal, these people could still be at their jobs.

Police Services - if the drugs were legal, then the cost of making 1.5 million drug-law arrests annually would disappear. The police services thus "lost" to society could be put to use for actual crimes.

Legal System Costs - ditto

State and Federal Corrections - ditto

Local Corrections - ditto

Federal Drug Budget - well duh!

Private Legal Costs - again, if people weren't being charged with "crimes" involving only drug-law violations, these resources would be available for others.

Drug Abuse Related Illness - this is a totally invented cost. The ONDCP study says that this number is derived by calculating the number of people who have used marijuana or cocaine for 100 times or more during their lives and multiplying that by the Bureau of Labor Statistics cost of living index. Even the people who did the study say: "changes in the number of individuals using marijuana and cocaine for more than 100 days may not be closely related to drug abuse related illness."

Crime Careers - like the number for drug abuse related illness, this one is entirely invented.


Of the costs claimed in the ONDCP study, four cost categories account for 63-67% of the total claimed costs of "drug abuse." Those four cost categories are all considered "Lost Productivity" costs:

  • Premature Death
  • Lost Wages Due to Incarceration
  • Drug Abuse Related Illness
  • Crime Careers

Premature Death

This "cost" is the potential lifetime earnings of those who died from drug-induced causes. It does not accurately portray the single year "cost" of such deaths. Most drug-induced deaths are caused by using drugs of unknown quality in unknown dosages. Were the drugs legal, it is likely that overdose death rates would be much lower.

Lost Wages Due to Incarceration

If you are in jail, it is quite difficult to make money. This cost could be recovered completely if we weren't jailing people for "drug" crimes.

Drug Abuse Related Illness

An entirely invented cost, the numbers represent the presumed impact caused by the number of people who have used cocaine or marijuana 100 or more times in their lifetimes. This number is included in the ONDCP cost estimates, even though the authors of the study themselves stated "changes in the number of individuals using marijuana and cocaine for more than 100 days may not be closely related to drug abuse related illness."1

Crime Careers

This category is supposed to represent the costs of drug dealers and addicts not having regular jobs. If all drugs (instead of just tobacco and alcohol) were regulated the same way, these people would either get regular jobs or continue to commit crimes to maintain their lifestyles. In either case, the cost would not exist if we weren't trying to stop people from using drugs other than alcohol and tobacco.

Any way we look at the numbers, it is costing a lot more to fight drug war than drug use is supposedly costing us. As is stands now, every dollar spent trying to stop people from doing things to themselves is a dollar that could have been spent doing something else. Bear in mind too, that were these substances legal, positive cash flow from sales and taxes would result.

Worst of all, labelling people as criminals and punishing them for doing things to themselves is a "cost to society" that our Founders likely never could have imagined we'd bear.

1 The Economic Costs of Drug Abuse in the United States, 1992-1998 September 2001, p.49

2005 Update

truth: the Anti-drugwar Anti-drugwar Arsenal Accept the $1 Challenge