Americans pay a lot to keep illegal drugs off the streets. A recent review of the evidence suggests much of our investment in the Drug Wars is wasted, if not outright counterproductive. We have only 5 percent of the world’s population yet about a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Four fifths of the 1.8 million arrests made in 2007 were for drug possession. In 1980, 40,000 people were jailed on drug charges. Today the figure is about half a million.
This is pretty expensive. Jailing drug offenders costs state prison systems some $6.6 billion a year. And the Feds must pay about as much. This is only part of the price. The consequences for inmates and their families is huge, in terms of lost wages and the impact on their children. The battle against drugs, moreover, itself produces violent criminal activity. This imposes a burden not only on the United States but also on countries like Mexico and Colombia, along the chain of supply to American consumers.
Perhaps it makes sense to ask what the huge investment in the Drug Wars has bought for us. It hasn’t diminished drug abuse. According to surveys by the World Heath Organization, 42 percent of American adults have tried marijuana. This is twice as many as in the Netherlands, France or Germany, and more than four times as many as in Mexico or Italy. Similarly, 16 percent of adults in the United States have tried cocaine, four times as many as in Mexico, Spain or Colombia, and eight times as many as in Germany or the Netherlands.
Interestingly, American anti-narcotic policies tend to be much harsher than elsewhere. Western European countries prioritize “harm reduction,” focusing on treating rather than jailing addicts. Portugal went all out in 2001 and decriminalized illegal substances. Switzerland has a program to give addicts daily heroin shots supervised by a nurse in a clinical setting. It has found that crime rates and unemployment among participants drop during participation. In Latin America, Argentina and Mexico have decriminalized possession of some illicit substances.
But for all the statements to the contrary, the United States is still pursuing its War on Drugs with the same tools used during the Nixon administration, treating its addicts with cops and prisons.