Massive drug control spending has no effect on addiction rate

Who benefits from the $1.5 trillion that taxpayers have given to the drug law enforcement industry?

En Passant's comment on Balko's blog nails it:

If addiction rates increase, drug warriors need more money to increase their efforts, or to use new and more expensive methods.

If addiction rates decrease, drug warriors need more money because their methods are effective, and more money will eliminate addiction entirely.

Everything You Need To Know About the War on Drugs


  1. It doesn’t help that the federal government is useless in dealing with anything outside US borders when it comes to the drug trade, and refuses to use any solution outside of full frontal attacks, undercover attacks, or a “break the law to find the criminal” attack. Maybe if $1.5 trillion went to some sort of solution that didn’t involve a mountain of under educated white people, a gun in each of those people’s hands, and granting protection from anyone willing to give up their boss (because we all know “trickle down” applies to literally every aspect of society) we might have some level of progress. Instead things have only become worse in every aspect of drug related crime.

      1. I hereby point out that by pointing out what PBC pointed out that both of you pointed out exactly what I intended to point out.

    1. not “meaningless” at all given that the rate of addiction is unchanged over the course of a forty year span where spending started at basically zero and is now in the trillions billions of dollars anually. So, regardless of inflation, $1.5 trillion dollars today is still a lot more money than almost no dollars in 1970.

      Edit: I misread the graph, the $1.5 trillion is how much we’ve spent to date. but the point remains the same.

      1. but what if spending has actually declined under new policies, and we dont even know it, because the chart makes the same old mistake of counting 1960 dollars the same way as 2012 dollars? What is the rate of drug war money growth vs total government spending growth?
        Im sorry, but this little chart is interesting but oversimplified.

        1. That’s the whole point of the chart, and it’s a simple point: drug use remains constant despite all those factors.

          1. Wrong. “all those other things” are not captured by the chart, since the chart shows only one other thing across time. seyo is correct in wanting to see the inflation-adjusted (or “real”) dollars. That said: is the chart using real dollars or not? Important to know because, for example, we don’t know if real dollar expenditures were constant across those years.

          2. actually yes, “all those other things” are captured by virtue of the fact the the drug use hasn’t changed over forty years. it has remained a near constant. therefore it is correct to conclude that nothing, be it the money spent by the government on the “Drug War” documented here or other factors, have any effect on drug use. pretty simple. in fact, I would posit that humans have used drugs at the same rate for as long as drugs have been available. which is to say, forever.

          3. Except that “rate of drug use” versus “price of a loaf of bread” would show a similar trend.

        2.  The only difference between the chart being adjusted for inflation or not would be to show that the drug policy spending was eiter really ineffective or really really ineffective. No inflation that the US has ever experience could flatten that curve to anything approaching flat.

      2. Actually, no. It’s 20 billion today and half a billion in 1970. “Spent to date” doesn’t mean anything because like most social efforts, money in an anti-drug campaign must be considered year by year when comparing to effect. (For instance, if you tried to end hunger by spending a trillion dollars on food stamps one year and 0$ for the next 99, you’d get quite different results than spending, say, 20 billion a year for 100 years, just to pull numbers out of my ass)

        In other words, if a dollar in 1970 was more than 40 times more valuable than a dollar today, AND this chart wasn’t adjusted for inflation, we could say that drug spending has actually decreased while still maintaining addiction levels — testifying to the efficiency of law enforcement. (it’s not, so we can’t. But it’s always a good question to ask)

  2. But you guys!  Don’t you see?  Since the only way to keep the economy moving is for the government to go into debt, and the only way to create that debt is to start a war (since all govt debt is fundamentally war debt)… then we NEED the drugs war –any sort of war, really– to maintain functioning economy. *Someone* has to get their ass kicked or the whole house of cards comes to a screeching halt.

      1.  I DON’T KNOW!  :(

        (please note my initial comment, while accurate, was heavily tinged with dark sarcasm.)

  3. An addiction rate hovering around 1.5% clearly implies that the squillions of potheads out there aren’t to be counted as drug addicts.

    I personally agree with that designation, but I’m not sure every viewer of this chart would.

    1. squillions of potheads out there aren’t to be counted as drug addicts.

      What about that insidious drug called alcohol that’s been roundly proven to be addictive?

    2. You would also have to make the distinction between “frequent use” and “addiction,” and good luck trying to draw that line in the statistical sand.

  4. Soundtrack to a graph like this, a hillbilly banjo and lyric:
    Praise the Lord and pass the guns,
    we’re winning the war on drugs!
    we’re winning the war on drugs!

    Dumb little ditty, a sarcastic caricature of inflexible dogma and denial that sadly isn’t far off the mark.

  5. Who are these people that run the government? Isn’t it stuff like this they should be looking in to?

    1. What, do you mean the politicians who rail against “Big Government” whenever a microphone is in the vicinity?
      That is, whenever they aren’t railing for “military surges” and “military action against (flavor of the month/year)”.

  6. It would be really nice if the scale for the y-axis on the left (drug addiction rate) was similarly from 0 – max value to match the y-axis on the right.  But that would make the graph less striking wouldn’t it.

    But the numbers clearly show no correlation between expenditures on drug war with addiction rates.  There’s no reason to abuse the graph to show it.

      1. It may start at zero, but it doesn’t stop at the maximum seen value. Rather than setting the y-axis limit to, say, 2%, they chose 10%. I think this is Xuth’s point.

  7. And of course this doesn’t include the costs of incarceration, which technically should be part of enforcement. We spend roughly $50k per inmate for the 500,000 non-violent drug offenders in jail, which comes out to a cool $25 billion last year – which was greater than the ENTIRE BUDGET OF THE DEA.

  8. I agree with the sentiment but the analysis is flawed.   You forgot the “compared to what?”   If that money were not spent, would the addiction rate have spiked?   We can’t tell from this.  Sure, you can extrapolate from earlier time frames, but you will need to do a LOT more data analysis to make your point.  

    1. It is a hell of a coincidence that there is no trend in the addiction rate whatsoever. You are being a devil’s advocate for the view that there might have been a factor that caused an increase in the addiction rate but that it was counterbalanced exactly by the increased spending. The idea that Congress could somehow fund the drug enforcement agencies with such a precision so that there would be no noticeable change in the trend is beyond belief  because any system with feedback has offsets and dead bands which results in correction trends. The only other idea is that Congress coincidentally funded these agencies with such a precision that there would be no noticeable change. That is also beyond belief due to the number of coincidental funding decisions required.

      1. There was a massive increase in inward trafficking of both marijuana and cocaine in the 70’s and 80’s for which the spending line on the graph tracks (delayed by a few years) pretty damn accurately.

        This doesn’t mean the money was effective, but, importantly, it doesn’t mean the opposite either.

        This is actually a really complicated issue that the OP graph does nothing for. Here’s a graph that suggests that the spending was tracking an increase in drug use:

        Here’s another graph:

        You’ll notice that the line showing black homicides (both victims and culprits) tracks the spending increase. This is a result of both more drugs entering the poorest urban communities and more money for racially biased policing.

        In any case, the fact that the spending was tracking a real change in drug use is not debatable.

        1. Assume the following:

          1) Spending cuts down addiction
          2) Increased trafficking increases addiction

          So, if the spending did not predate the increased trafficking, then the addiction rate must have increased. This is not observed. Thus, both of these assumptions are wrong. I’ve already explained why #1 is wrong. You can work out why #2 is wrong.

          1. I agree that addiction is not directly correlated to any of these things. The primary point I’ve been arguing is that there are other reasons to spend money fighting drug trafficking and that whether or not the spending was effective cannot be judged by the addiction rate.

            An increase in trafficking requires an increase in spending, unless you think that increased trafficking isn’t worth spending money on (again, assuming that all money spent against users and small dealers is wasted and that you could be much more effective, for free, through legalization).

            There’s enough money in the illegal drug market in the US that if left unchecked, could garner a lot of political power for people who care even less for general societal well-being than the ones who currently have all the power.

            Again, nothing shown here indicates that the money was spent effectively, but there’s also no reason to believe it shouldn’t have been spent at all.

          2. No. The trafficking isn’t the problem. It is the addiction and mental health treatment of the addicts that is the problem. And that is the ONLY problem.

            The price of drugs is high due to enforcement. This is what makes the drug traffickers rich. The value of these drugs in an unregulated market would be about the value of ibuprofen or caffeine. Eliminate Prohibition and you eliminate the gangsters and cartels.

          3. In response to bzishi below, that’s exactly my point, as I said in my very first post here, allowing the drugs to be sold openly will inflict complete and total damage to traffickers. Enforcement spending is necessary when you’re committed to keeping the drugs illegal (about which I think I’ve made my stance clear) and when you’ve committed, it’s necessary to spend a lot. 

            Once you’ve committed to keeping drug sales underground, you need to spend money to prevent all of the murder and exploitation that comes with the trade and distribution, not to mention the white-collar crime and political corruption that result from the fact that trafficking is so profitable that it’s the only obvious use for so much cash.Toleration and decriminalization are effective strategies in reducing the power of traffickers, but legalization is a death blow. The number of people who experience addiction might go up initially, but as a society we are more than capable of handling the legalization of drugs. Once you’re allowed to have meaningful conversations out in the open and the stigma of criminality is gone, prevention and early-intervention of addiction will become far, far more accessible and effective. 

            The effect of the legalization of marijuana alone in the United States would have a completely transformative effect in Mexico (the primary source of funding for Mexican cartels is grass). One of the many, many costs of prohibition here is the risk of murder and the climate of terror across the border where we’ve outsourced our production. Cartels could never compete with a legal market in the US, they’re income and their power would be decimated.

    2. This is totally correct.

      There’s no reason to believe (from this graph) that the spending wasn’t completely effective.

      If there was a spike in inward drug-trafficking (which there has been) then it would make sense that expenditures would need to go up in order to maintain the baseline, not only to keep addiction down, but more importantly to stop traffickers from becoming even wealthier (and enjoying the political power that inevitably comes wherever there is a massive demand for drugs and inadequate law enforcement response). Rest assured, drug expenditures do successfully introduce both risk, additional expenditure and diminution of political power for cartels (it’s important to note here that all the costs incurred by arresting and imprisoning people with small amounts of drugs are dollars completely wasted). 

      The reality is that we can inflict complete and total damage to traffickers more or less immediately and at more or less zero cost anytime we choose, by allowing these substances to sold openly. This will, of course, happen eventually. It’s just a question of how much money we’ll waste in the meanwhile.

      1. For an addict, the price elasticity of demand is inelastic. Thus, increased enforcement will increase the price but not change the demand. In fact, this increased enforcement will be highly beneficial to efficient and ruthless organizations that have effective methods to get past the enforcement. It will create powerful cartels similar to the way Prohibition created powerful gangsters.

        1. Importantly, this is also true when you consider employment to be a commodity. For someone who, say, has a pre-existing condition, price of employment is extremely inelastic, meaning wages can stagnate or drop and the conditions can become extremely poor but there’s almost no price too high (in those terms) when the alternative is 6 digits worth of medical bills. This also applies if the employment market is weak and you have children to support, or even if you’re simply living paycheck to paycheck. The only time labor is meaningfully a market, is when elasticity is high. The predominance of crappy jobs and high-cost healthcare trap people in a similar way, economically, as substance abuse.

          I would say though that the root of the problem is the law, not the enforcement. Underground competition decreases the price in dollars, but it increases the price in blood. Legalization is far, far superior to decriminalization, socially speaking.

  9. We could compare it to another crime that has an upwards trending budget and a baseline rate, such as federal subsidy of local police vs murder rate, or some such.

  10. Imagine if this money (as well as the money spent locally and in prisons) was spent on the treatment of people with addictions instead of on having SWAT teams shoot people’s dogs or burn their children with flash grenades. Crazy thought, right?

  11. Except to be really what you need to know, this graph would have to incorporate elements of racial discrimination in enforcement, arrest, conviction, sentencing & incarceration.

  12. 1. People want to get fucked up.

    2. Not everyone can handle getting fucked up.
    3. One or more tries at rehab can help some of those who can’t handle getting fucked up.

    All we can do is be realistic about people’s drive to alter their mental state and provide funding for treatment.

  13. -And in other news, it was discovered that the force of gravity pulls objects toward the Earth. Fascinating.

  14.  I think a lot of departments around the nation have become quite addicted to the drug money.

    Both from the governmental outlays, and the siezures they are allowed to auction off.

  15. I’m curious what counts as a drug control program? Because in my experience it’s supporting after school programs, like sports, arts, music, etc. (ie the things that are being cut in many non-affluent areas) that are more helpful than D.A.R.E.-type program.

  16. This is not about addiction to drugs, silly. This is an addiction to power over other people.

  17. I have to say that much as I agree with the sentiments of the chart’s creators, this is one of the most egregious examples of ‘Lieing With Statistics’ I’ve seen in quite some time. The addiction line is the rate for any given year, while the expenditure line is cumulative, and makes no accommodation for inflation. The Very Large and Very Visible ‘!.5 TRILLION’ stamped across it is a further bit of distraction.

    The casual reader will assume both lines are rates, since that is the way these things are usually done, and think we’re now spending 10x as much as were were back in 1984. In fact, in real money, we’re spending about 4x as much.

    The case against the War on Some Drugs can be made without deceptive tactics.


Comments are closed.