U.S. Drug Policy: At What Cost?

Moving Beyond the Self-Defeating Supply-Control Fixation
Statement before the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress
June 19, 2008

My point in reviewing the experience with forced eradication is that a stiff dose of historical perspective is in order as policy makers contemplate the scope of the drug trade today, and engage in a critical examination of how to improve U.S. drug policies.

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Current policies are not new, nor have they been resource-starved. At home and abroad, the enforcement-led approaches that dominate U.S. drug policy today took their shape by the mid- to late-1980s. Even as drugs receded as a top public concern, government spending at all levels continued apace, with the bulk of spending dedicated to prosecuting and incarcerating drug offenders. The combination of increased prosecutions and escalating penalties made drugs the leading contributor to an unprecedented explosion in the number of Americans behind bars.

By my conservative calculations, since 1981, federal, state and local governments have spent at least $800 billion (adjusted for inflation) on drug control, including $600 billion on efforts typically classified as “supply control” (domestic enforcement, interdiction, and international programs). Come appropriations time, the winning formula for federal anti-drug agencies has generally been a variant of “We scored great successes against the drug traffickers last year – eradicating so many hectares of crops, seizing so many tons of drugs, arresting so many dealers – but the enemy remains formidable, so to sustain the progress we have made will require increased resources.” More often than not, Congress has complied.

Beyond direct government spending on drug control, illicit drugs and drug control policies generate considerable economic costs to the nation. My estimate of direct expenditures does not include these burdens, which include cost categories such as productivity losses due to drug-related premature death or to drug-related incarceration.

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) last published estimates of this sort in 2004, showing the overall annual economic costs of illicit drugs growing every year from 1992 ($108 billion) to 2002 ($181 billion). While the findings of such exercises are certainly subject to debate – given the many limitations of the underlying data and the numerous assumptions that have to be made – the wide range of sectors affected (heath care, crime and criminal justice, workplace productivity, etc.) suggests the large scale of the problem and the potential benefits of improving policies in ways that can reduce these steep social and economic costs.