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Losing Effort: The United States' War on Drugs

The United States' losing war on drugs

Which country do you think is most to blame for illegal drug use across the globe?

Is it Columbia, which is a major producer of cocaine? How about Afghanistan, the world’s largest producer of opium? Or maybe it’s the Netherlands, a leading producer of such synthetic drugs as ecstasy?

Try the United States.

If consumers in the United States didn’t have such an appetite for cocaine, heroin and marijuana, the globe's major drug-producing countries wouldn’t have such financially stirring reasons for producing these illegal substances.

In fact, residents of the United States like more than just their apple pie. They are the world’s largest consumers of cocaine, Colombian heroin, Mexican heroin and marijuana.

So if you want to point a finger at the causes of the global drug trade, look no further than the United States.

A Costly, and Losing, Effort

You can blame Richard Nixon for the United States’ long and costly war on drugs. The former president was the first to utter the infamous words “war on drugs.”

Of course, Nixon didn't spend all that much on fighting drug use in the United States. His initial drug-fighting budget weighed in at just $100 million.

That may seem like a lot of money. But compared to the tons of money the United States now spends in its war on drugs—, $100 million is practically chicken feed. If you want to see just how much money the country spends on this un-winnable war, click here for the infographic. You might be surprised at how much the country is paying to make it harder for criminals to smuggle drugs past the United States’ borders.

The projected budget for the war on drugs in fiscal year 2011, approved by the Obama Administration, stands at a whopping $15.6 billion.

And that’s just the beginning of how much fighting drugs costs the country.

Four Decades, Billions of Dollars

The United States openly declared a war on drugs about 40 years ago. Since that time, the country has spent a rather staggering $121 billion to arrest more than 37 million non-violent drug offenders.

There’s a lot of debate about whether arresting these people actually does any good. Many would argue that these folks need rehabilitation more than incarceration. But what no one can dismiss is that jailing these offenders sure is costly.

It has cost the United States, over the last four decades, more than $450 billion to lock these nonviolent offenders in federal prisons. And here’s another shocking fact: More than half of the country’s federal prisoners today are serving sentences for drug offenses.

This puts an incredible strain on the country’s prison systems and on taxpayers. But few people seem to care. How about you? Are you happy to be paying taxes so privately run prisons can make money incarcerating your neighbors for using drugs?

Are Times Changing?

The truth is, few politicians will ever push for spending less on this failing war on drugs. That’s a bit like committing political suicide. Their opponents in upcoming election campaigns would tag them as being soft on crime. They might even say that they’re not concerned about young people experimenting with dangerous drugs.

But shouldn’t more of the United States’ money be spent on rehabilitating drug offenders? Wouldn’t it make more financial sense to provide drug offenders with therapy and counseling?

These approaches certainly would cost less than incarceration. But, then again, the U.S. voters like to see their drug users thrown behind bars. And until this changes, don’t expect many, if any, politicians to suddenly develop a backbone and call for reworking the costly and failing war on drugs. There are elections to win, after all.


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