Home > Essays, Rants > The war on drugs has wasted a TRILLION dollars

The war on drugs has wasted a TRILLION dollars

I recently read an article by the accociated press which claims that over 1 trillion dollars was spent on the War on Drugs since it was first conceived by President Nixon in 1971.  How is that possible?  Have we really added over a trillion dollars to our national debt to prosecute the war on drugs?  What has that war gained us? 

The answer is shocking.  Despite over 1 trillion dollars spent drug use is exactly the same now as it was when the War on Drugs was declared.  Every year the amount of money we spend increases.  Back in 1971 Nixon funded the new war with $100 million.  In the decades since the annual budget has climbed to $15.1 billion.

Wait a second, you’re probably asking.  Adding up the annual budgets for the War on Drugs doesn’t even come close to a trillion dollars.  How did we spend that much money?  Here is a breakdown from the AP article:

  • $20 billion to fight the drug gangs in their home countries. In Colombia, for example, the United States spent more than $6 billion, while coca cultivation increased and trafficking moved to Mexico – and the violence along with it
  • $33 billion in marketing “Just Say No”-style messages to America’s youth and other prevention programs. High school students report the same rates of illegal drug use as they did in 1970, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says drug overdoses have “risen steadily” since the early 1970s to more than 20,000 last year.
  • $49 billion for law enforcement along America’s borders to cut off the flow of illegal drugs. This year, 25 million Americans will snort, swallow, inject and smoke illicit drugs, about 10 million more than in 1970, with the bulk of those drugs imported from Mexico.
  • The Justice Department estimates the consequences of drug abuse – “an overburdened justice system, a strained health care system, lost productivity, and environmental destruction” – cost the United States $215 billion a year
  • $121 billion to arrest more than 37 million nonviolent drug offenders, about 10 million of them for possession of marijuana. Studies show that jail time tends to increase drug abuse.
  • $450 billion to lock those people up in federal prisons alone. Last year, half of all federal prisoners in the U.S. were serving sentences for drug offenses.

 

Take a good look at the last two items on that list.  Over $570 billion dollars has been spent to arrest and imprison nearly forty million of your fellow citizens.  Of those nearly ten million were arrested for possession of marijuana, a drug that has been decriminalized in much of the US and may be legal in California come November.

So if the levels of drug use are the same why are we still waging this war?  This quote from John P. Walters, the former director of Nationl Drug Control Policy, sums up the attitude of government and law enforcement:

“To say that all the things that have been done in the war on drugs haven’t made any difference is ridiculous,” Walters said. “It destroys everything we’ve done. It’s saying all the people involved in law enforcement, treatment and prevention have been wasting their time. It’s saying all these people’s work is misguided.”

News flash genius.  Your work is misguided.  You’ve spent a mountain of money, ruined lives and locked up nearly ten million people who’s only crime was lighting up a joint.  Yet proponents of the War on Drugs remain steadfast in their believe that legalizing drugs will destroy the fabric of our society.  They continue to pursue the same failed agenda consuming vast amounts of your tax dollars in the process.

When will the madness end?  We’re closing schools, laying off teachers and struggling to help millions of unemployed Americans.  Can we really afford to waste our money prosecuting a failed war on non-violent people who are hurting no one but themselves?

Critics of legalization say yes.  They warn that if we legalize drugs their use will skyrocket.  Ironically this is not the first time such an argument has been used in our history.  In 1920 a coalition of moralists led a grassroots movement to have alcolhol made illegal.  They believed that it was the root of evil in man, and that it’s removal would transform our society into a utopia.  This quote from minister and baseball hero Billy Sunday sums it up best:

“The reign of tears is over. The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses. Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and the children will laugh. Hell will be forever rent.”

Those familiar with history already know what came next.  In making alcolhol illegal we opened up one of the nation’s largest industries to organized crime.  Making it illegal did nothing to reduce the demand, and people were willing to go wherever they had to in search of a drink.  Distilleries and speak easies cropped up all over the nation, nearly all of which were controlled by organized crime.

Suddenly people like Al Capone had access to vast sums of money, which they used to bribe politicians and fund their own private criminal empires.  For the next twelve years gang activity flourished across the US.  Law enforcement was out gunned, out manned and out funded thanks to the ban on alcolhol.

In 1929 the stock market crashed giving way to the great depression.  Income tax revenue dropped by 60% over the next three years.  Suddenly state and local goverments found themselves out of money and with record unemployement.  They no longer had the money to prosecute their ridiculous war against alcolhol.  What’s more they deprived themselves the massive infusion of tax revenue that would come from taxing and regulating alcolhol.

By 1933 sanity prevailed and the 18th amendment was nullified making alcolhol legal once again.  Guess what happened next?  Gang activity dropped drastically.  The government saved millions of dollars that had previously been spent to prosecute and incarcerate those caught drinking.  Instead they collected millions of dollars which could be spent to help their flagging economies.

Does this sound at all familiar?  Gang warfare has devestated Mexico, and nearly all of it is funded by funneling illegal drugs into the US.  It has infested most of our larger cities, and nearly everyone has heard of the Bloods and Crypts in Los Angeles.  Crime is rampant and our beleagured law enforcement is not able to stop it.  Even when they do many of the people they arrest are those using drugs like marijuana, not those smuggling such drugs across the border.

Our state and local economies are out of money.  We’ve been spending beyond our means for decades, but the bill has finally come due.  We need another source of revenue, and we need to reduce spending.  If we are wise we’ll learn from history.  Ending prohibition solved many problems.  Legalizing drugs will accomplish the same.

Estimates claim we could collect as much as eight billion dollars from legalizing and taxing cannabis in the state of California.  At the same time we’ll save billions more by allowing law enforcement to deal with other issues.  We’ll deprive the gangs of the money they currently use to grow.  We’ll save billions more by releasing the inmates incarcerated for possession of marijuana.  Most importantly make it more difficult for children to gain access to drugs. 

Want proof?  Portugal legalized drugs in 2001.  A study by Glen Greenwald of the Cato Institute found the sudden legalization had almost no effect on drug use.  It even dropped a bit amongst teenagers.  Amsterdam has had legal marijuana for decades, but doesn’t suffer from rampant drug use either.

We know from our own history the dangers of outlawing something that millions of people want.  It’s a lost cause, one that cannot end successfully.  We saw the crime that washed over the US during Prohibition, and we see the current crime destabilzing our Mexican allies to the south.  Every day it spills into the border states, and is increasingly present in our larger cities. 

Our nation is suffering through the worst economic winter in living memory.  Isn’t it time to give up this failed war?  Legalize drugs today.  Tax them, regulate them and then use the proceeds to fund drug rehabilitation centers.  Instead of demonizing those who use drugs we should help those who abuse them.

It’s the only sane answer.  Unless you want to see another 40 years and trillion dollars wasted.

Categories: Essays, Rants
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