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Congress’ Joint Economic Committee to Examine Economic Impact of U.S. Drug Policy

Jag Davies,
Drug Law Reform Project
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June 18, 2008

Tomorrow, U.S. Senator Jim Webb (D-Va.) will convene a hearing of the Joint Economic Committee (JEC) entitled, “Illegal Drugs: Economic Impact, Societal Costs, Policy Responses.” According to the committee’s media advisory, “The panel will discuss the illegal drug economy in the United States, assess the costs of U.S. policy responses to combating drug use, and address the need for policy reforms.”

Considering the government’s scandalous waste of resources on destructive and inefficient drug policies — and the economic troubles spreading across the country — it’s thrilling to see Congress making the connection. Here are a few topics that we would love to see discussed at the hearing:

  • Hidden Costs of the Drug War. The Office of National Drug Control Policy’s 2006 reauthorization requires that the National Drug Control Budget include all funding requests for any drug control activity, including costs attributable to drug law enforcement activities such as prosecuting and incarcerating federal drug law offenders. This requirement was necessary because in 2002 ONDCP had dropped many of these costs from the budget — effectively reducing the budget’s size by one-third, and exaggerating the proportion of the budget slated for treatment and prevention. Despite Congress’ mandate that ONDCP prepare a comprehensive budget that informs Congress and the public of the full scope of drug control program expenditures, the recent 2009 National Drug Control Strategy completely omits the activities that Congress ordered to be re-instated. It should go without saying that a comprehensive assessment of the overall costs of current U.S. drug policies is needed to assess its cost-effectiveness.
  • Shifting to a Health-Based Approach. Several studies have demonstrated that treatment is a more cost-effective method for addressing the issue of drug abuse than enforcement and harsh punitive measures such as lengthy imprisonment. For example, a report by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that every dollar spent on drug treatment in the community is estimated to return $18.52 in benefits to society. Along the same lines, a report by the RAND Corporation, a Pentagon-funded think tank, found that domestic law enforcement efforts cost 15 times as much as treatment to achieve the same reduction in societal costs. The University of California’s recent analysis of Proposition 36, the state’s groundbreaking program to divert nonviolent drug offenders to treatment, concluded that the state produced $173.3 million in savings in the first year alone.

Despite the proven efficacy of drug treatment, according to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, there are over 20 million Americans in need of substance abuse treatment that are currently not receiving services. This is despite the fact that, since 1980, our nation’s annual drug war spending has skyrocketed from just under $2 billion to over $50 billion. While the treatment gap has marched steadily upward, the number of drug offenders in prisons and jails has increased by a whopping 1100 percent since 1980 — nearly a half-million (493,800) persons are in state or federal prison or local jail for a drug offense, compared to an estimated 41,100 in 1980. Drug arrestshave tripled in the last 25 years, totaling a record 1.89 million arrests in 2006. Despite this massive escalation in arrests, drug use has remained relatively constant. Drug-related health problems, on the other hand, have risen dramatically. According to a little-noticed January report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), drug overdoses killed more than 33,000 people in 2005, the last year for which data are available. Overdose deaths have more than tripled since 1990, and increased over 60% between 1999 and 2005. It has become all too clear that our over-reliance on arrest and imprisonment have had little or no effect on drug use and a counter-productive effect on drug-related health problems.Yet, while health-based approaches to drug abuse are demonstrably more effective than criminal justice-based approaches, U.S. policy is stuck in the same excessively punitive “tough-on-crime” approach that got us into this mess in the first place.

  • Emphasis on Marijuana. Of the 1.89 million drug arrests in 2006, over 40% (829,625) were marijuana arrests. Of these marijuana arrests, 89% were for mere possession. Taxpayers are stuck with the multibillion dollar bill for these hundreds of thousands of marijuana arrests, which consume 4.5 million law enforcement hours – the equivalent of taking 112,500 law enforcement officers off the streets. The focus on arrest and prosecution of small-time nonviolent drug offenders distorts law enforcement priorities and has diverted resources from other important law enforcement functions, such as preventing violent crime. Check out for a fantastic video, featuring travel guru Rick Steves, that outlines the many unacceptable costs of focusing so many law enforcement resources on marijuana.

The costs of the Drug War and mass incarceration are crippling both our communities and our public coffers. State and local agencies carry the brunt of enforcing, prosecuting, and incarcerating drug offenders, yet it is also state and local budgets that are being squeezed tightest by the current economic downturn. Still, there are a lot of opportunities to take steps in the right direction today — a step away from a criminal justice approach and toward a health-based approach, and a step away from blind prohibition and punishment and toward insightful regulation and treatment. Let’s hope tomorrow’s hearing is a pivotal step in the right direction.

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