Scott Hughes: The War on Drugs in America

In 1971, President Richard Nixon signed into law “The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act” otherwise known as “The War on Drugs.” My question is, how’s the war working out? We hear about some form of addiction, or actions that result from addictions, on a daily basis but how much do we really know about this war? During the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, information was reported to the American People almost on a daily basis. We know the costs associated with the two wars as well as the human cost, positive results, and negative consequences. Are we as familiar with the “war on drugs?” Shouldn’t we be informed about that war since it’s now been going on for over 45 years? Would we allow our government to continue a war for over 45 years if we have gained nothing positive as a result but have lost too much to mention in this short article? 

Let’s take a look at some costs associated with the “War on Drugs.” Then let’s look at what we have gained, lost, and what is about the same, or unchanged.  The federal budget for this war in 1971 was 100 million dollars. That’s not chump change by any means. That’s a significant amount of money. Today, 100 million would equate to about 30 cents per every man, woman, and child. Now the budget is significantly more. It’s right at 15.1 Billion dollars or 151 times the original amount of 100 million dollars per year. This means that we are spending so much on the “war on drugs” that it is costing every man, woman, and child in the US $47.18 annually. The total cost of this war is 1 Trillion Dollars! The math for the total cost is about $3,125 per person in the US! With that much money spent there has got to be some improvements resulting from this war. Nope. There are none.

Let’s look at some more numbers and see what has been gained due to this war. In 1971, about 15% of the total numbers of prisoners in the US were due to non-violent drug offenses. Currently the number of non-violent drug offenders that make up our prison population is 51%. The second largest population in prisons are immigration related offenses and that’s about 10%. The average cost to house one prisoner in the United States ranges from 30 to 60 thousand dollars annually. Currently, there is just over 2.3 million prisoners held in jails and prisons in the United States. This means that the American taxpayers are paying between 35 million and 70 million dollars per year to house non-violent drug offenders.

It was estimated in 1971, at the beginning of this war, that about 1.2% of Americans were addicted to drugs or alcohol. Today, that number is about 1.4%. This means that 45 years, a cost of 1 Trillion dollars, and an increase of non-violent drug offenders in US prisons by 300% has reduced the number of addicts by 0%. Not one percent in the better direction after all of that money and time. The number has actually risen slightly from 1.2 % to 1.4%. If this war was a traditional war being fought in another country, would we still be fighting it? Or is it time for the United States to rethink the approach to drug use and addiction? This is a rhetorical question but there is one thing that will hinder any kind of radical change that will bring results. That is the job security for hundreds of thousands of law enforcement officials and billions of dollars spent on equipment contracts. With these numbers there is only one logical conclusion. The “war on drugs” has been lost and until we rethink drug addiction and how to handle it, we will continue to do nothing but pay for a war that never worked.   

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