Pubdate: Thu, 24 June 1999
Source: New Times (CA)
Author: Steven T. Jones


Through its Office of National Drug Control Policy, the federal government
spends $17 billion per year fighting drugs.

That's roughly the same thing it spends on the Food Stamp program, which
feeds poor Americans, and on our country's entire General Sciences, Space,
and Technology budget.

But the actual financial cost of the drug war is much higher, with many
drug-reform advocacy groups quoting the cost at $50 billion, which is equal
to the combined budgets for all of our country's agriculture, energy, and
veteran's programs.

And still, a close examination shows that the total annual costs of the drug
war probably exceed $50 billion.

State and local governments contributed $15.9 billion to the fight against
drugs in 1991, the last year for which the federal government tallied that
figure. At that time federal spending on drug eradication was half what it
is today.

Of the $17 billion the federal government directly spends each year to
control drug use, 61 percent goes for criminal justice and interdiction,
while 30 percent goes for treatment and prevention programs.

Yet the cost of fighting drugs continues beyond the high-profile drug busts
and spirited DARE rallies.

The California Department of Corrections has an annual budget of $3.9
billion to deal with 161,000 inmates, 46,655 of whom are being incarcerated
for drug offenses at a cost of about $1.1 billion each year.

Nationwide, federal government figures show there are more than 1.7 million
people in prisons and jails, 22 to 33 percent of those for drug offenses. At
an average annual cost of about $20,000 per inmate, that adds nearly $7.8
billion to the drug war price tag.

And then there are the soft costs of the drug war, which may be impossible
to calculate. How much have we paid in welfare and social service costs to
families once supported by drug profits? How much have we paid in foreign
aid to countries that fight drugs at our insistence? How much money have we
removed from the underground economy, especially in drug-growing regions
like Humbolt County, by destroying million of pounds of illegal product each
year? How many police and court officers could we eliminate if there were no
drug laws?

Such questions need to be taken into account during any serious debate over
whether the drug war is worth its costs.

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