The War on Drugs: A Trillion Dollar Failure


Mackenzie Luby, Contributor

I will begin with one number, and that is 51 billion. This number has an infinite amount of applications in mathematics and science. However, unlike math and science, what this number represents is not in the best interest of human progress. This number represents something far more sinister. It represents the amount of money spent by the government to fight the unwinnable war against personal freedom, privacy, the poor, and minorities: the war on drugs.

51 billion dollars, more than the entire GDP of 26 countries, spent each year by the government. Since the start of the war on drugs the United States has spent roughly one trillion dollars. The single largest waste of taxpayer dollars in history, especially since the addiction rates since the start of the War on Drugs was officially declared, have stayed nearly the same.

In 1971, then president Richard Nixon declared drug use to be, “Public enemy number one.” This was believed to be a war on addiction and in the interest of public health, however, this was proven not to be the case in 1994, when John Ehrlichman (Nixon’s assistant for domestic affairs) said to Harper’s Magazine:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” [1]

The racial disparities are also statistically apparent, the NAACP recently reported that African-Americans are five times as likely to be incarcerated for drug-crimes than their white counterparts despite the fact they both use at around the same rates.

This is far from the only qualm however, the market value of the illegal drug market worldwide is roughly a hundred billion dollars. Such a profitable industry that our own government took a few stabs at it. Notably when the United States allowed the trafficking of Cocaine into the nation during the Iran-Contra scandal. This type of hypocrisy is unprecedented. [2]

Moreover, the government’s inability to accept scientific fact is unsettling. The scientific community is unanimous in saying that addiction is a disease, and thus should not be treated as a crime. Spending an estimated $32,000 per inmate on average as opposed to providing treatment, surrounding addicts by seasoned criminals is certainly going to increase the rate of relapse and chance of reincarceration.

Our government’s total disregard to the well-being of society and frivolous use of our tax dollars has led to an increase in largely non-violent drug offenses that equate to about half of all of the american prison population.

The current drug prohibition laws are based entirely on antiquated research in regards to how addiction works. It is widely assumed that once a person is hooked it is extremely difficult to get off, the drug consumes them until a slow and agonizing death. However, a study by renowned Canadian Psychologist Bruce K. Alexander studied the effects of cocaine-laced water on lab mice in two settings; The first in which a mouse is held in solitary confinement with two bottles, one filled with normal water, the other with a cocaine solution. The other contained the same two bottles but the mice were placed in a heaven for mice which included toys, other mice, and lots of sexual opportunities called “Rat Park.” What the study found was interesting, the solitary mice for the most part always chose the cocaine-water until it killed them. However, the mice in “Rat Park“ hardly ever chose the cocaine-water. Bruce K. Alexander concluded that the true cause for drug addiction was inherent in an ever-lonely existence. It was an issue with how society was organized as opposed to the narcotics. [3]

The United States should follow the paths of many European powers that have accepted the futility of prohibition and who instead have invested in harm reduction and decriminalization which has had an amazing impact on the well-being of the public including some of the lowest problematic use rates, lowest overdose rates, and lowest incarceration rates.


1. Baum, Dan. “Legalize it All: How to win the war on drugs.” Harper’s , Apr. 2016.


3. Alexander, Bruce K. “The Myth of Drug-Induced Addiction.” The Myth of Drug-Induced Addiction, Dept. of Psychology, Simon Fraser University