Ever since the war on drugs started in the USA 48 years ago, there has been a lot of debate over its success and effectiveness. And although some may justify it even today, war on drugs statistics tell a different story. 

No one can dispute that some illicit drugs are harmful and that drug addictions and overdoses are real issues in today’s society. However, what stats and facts show is that a policy based on scare-tactics and tough-on-crime actions is not effective. 

In fact, more often than not, it can have the reverse effect. On the other hand, legalization and a more liberal approach have been proven to be much more successful in many countries across the world and in several US states. 

Top Ten War On Drugs Facts and Figures to Think About

  • The Marijuana Tax Act was introduced in 1937.
  • It costs about $450,000 just to put one drug dealer behind bars.
  • Nearly 5 million US adults said they used cocaine in 2016.
  • Recreational use of cannabis is now legal in 11 states and the District of Columbia.
  • From 1980 to 1997, the number of drug arrests per year reached 1,584,000.
  • The USA has the highest incarceration rate in the world, according to drug incarceration statistics. 
  •  Uruguay became the first country to legalize the growing, sale, and smoking of cannabis.
  • There are around 100 SIFs across the world in use today.
  • Overdose is the leading cause of death among individuals released from prison.
  • The number of US adults who saw drugs as a concern dropped to less than 10% at the start of the 1990.

The War On Drugs Timeline

War on Drugs Statistics - Timeline

1.Drugs were first introduced in the USA in the 1800s.

(History)

Medicinal and recreational drug use has been present in the USA since the country was founded. In fact, in the 1890s, a small amount of cocaine was sold for $1.50 in catalogs of popular department stores.  

2. Cannabis was introduced in the United States Pharmacopoeia in 1850.

(NCBI)

As marijuana statistics show, cannabis was used to treat a variety of ailments, from gout and rheumatism to tetanus and cholera. It was listed as legitimate medication in the United States Pharmacopoeia until 1942.

3. The Federal Government passed the Harrison Narcotic Act in 1914.

(Stanford University)

Introduced in 1914, the first federal drug policy restricted the use, distribution, manufacturing, and sale of morphine, heroin, cocaine, and marijuana. 

4. The Marijuana Tax Act was introduced in 1937.

(History)

Although it didn’t dispute its medicinal properties, the Act introduced heavy penalties, such as $2,000 fines and five-year prison sentences. This is considered to be the start of the war on marijuana, according to the war on drugs facts.

5. The Controlled Substance Act was passed in May 1971.

(Schaffer Library of Drug Policy)

This Act was the first comprehensive and integrated set of regulations on certain controlled substances, such as heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and LSD. Any use or simple possession of a controlled substance was declared illegal and punishable under federal law.

6. Nixon launched the war on drugs in June 1971.

(Britannica)

Nixon’s war on drugs facts suggest that the President officially started the modern-day war by increasing funding for drug-control agencies and treatment facilities. 

7. Facts about the war on drugs show that from 1973 to 1977, 11 states decriminalized marijuana possession.

(History) (Schaffer Library of Drug Policy)

Even though at the time it was estimated that 35 million Americans stated that they smoked pot once in a while, including the sons of President Carter, the legislation to decriminalize marijuana was stuck in committees and was never realized.

8. Almost 5.8 million people in the USA stated that they used cocaine in 1985.

(Stanford University) (History)

In a matter of just six years, the United States war on drugs statistics reveal that cocaine demand grew by 700%. This was the beginning of the crack epidemic that shook the USA from the early 1980s and lasted for almost a decade.

9. Ronald Reagan’s term in office started in 1981 when the war on drugs reached its peak.

(Britannica)

President Reagan’s focus on tough policies and zero-tolerance led to mass incarceration in the US for non-violent drug offenses. There was a huge discrepancy between the number of African Americans and prisoners of other races.

10. According to the war on drugs stats, funding for drug rehabilitation reduced from $386 million to $362 million in 1981.

(Stanford University)

On the other hand, the annual budget for eradication programs grew from $437 million from the time of President Carter to $1.4 billion during Reagan’s first term.This is the evidence that Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs focused more on criminal punishment than treatment for substance users.

11. The Antidrug Act of 1986 established mandatory sentencing of 100:1 ratio of powder cocaine to cocaine base

(Britannica)

In other words, 5 grams of crack resulted in a minimum of five years in prison, while 500 grams of powder cocaine led to the same sentence. At that time, the social belief was that cocaine base, or crack, was more closely associated with addiction and potential abuse. And since around 80% of crack users were African American, this Act led to growing incarceration rates by race. The crack vs. powder cocaine ratio wasn’t reduced to 18:1 until 2010.

12. War on drugs statistics in the early 1980s show that 2-6% of Americans saw drug abuse as the nation’s “number one problem.”

(Drug Policy Alliance)

By September 1989, just four years later, this percentage increased to an incredible 64%, making it one of the most intense fixations in American history, which was fueled by the political hysteria regarding substance abuse.

13. The number of US adults who saw drugs as a concern dropped to less than 10% at the start of the 1990s.

(Drug Policy Alliance)

According to statistics on the war on drugs, people started to lose interest in the government-led actions, mostly as a result of less intense media coverage. However, the draconian policies enforced by the government, which created a racial divide and led to countless arrests and incarcerations, remained in effect.

14. $13.2 billion were allocated to US drug policy in 1995.

(Stanford University)

President Clinton doubled the budget for rehabilitation programs. However, out of $1 billion that was given to the Community Empowerment Program, a mere $50 million was used for education and treatment. War on drugs statistics put forth that out of the total $13.2 billion budget, $7.8 billion was used on the demand and supply fronts of the drug policy.

15. President Obama granted clemency to 330 federal prisoners convicted of drug crimes.

(Chicago Tribune)

Obama also stated he would like to treat cannabis as a public health issue, like alcohol or tobacco. Although some of the changes fell short, they were still a step in the right direction and showed a shift towards more sensible drug policies.

War On Drugs Incarceration Statistics

War on Drugs Statistics - Prison

16. From 1980 to 1997, the number of drug arrests per year reached 1,584,000.

(Drug Policy Alliance) (Human Rights Watch)

In 1989, less than a million people were arrested on drug possession alone, and almost half a million were arrested for sale of illicit drugs.

17. 1,632,921 people were arrested for drug violations in the USA in 2018.

(Drug Policy Alliance)

Over 85% of those were arrested for possession. Precisely 659,700 Americans were arrested for marijuana law violations, drug arrests statistics in 2018 reveal, while 90% of them were arrested on possession charges only.

18. 6% of state prisoners were drug offenders in 1980.

(Human Rights Watch)

In the same year, a quarter of federal inmates were charged with a drug-related offense. Today, drug offenders account for 59% of the federal prison population. Experts agree that there is no greater force behind growing US incarceration rates in the 1980s than the war on drugs.

19. The USA has the highest prison population rates in the world, as drug incarceration statistics show. 

(Drug Policy Alliance) (Center for American Progress)

Data on how many people are in prison in the US shows that American jails hold 2.3 million people. One in five individuals is serving time on drug charges. In fact, someone is arrested in America for drug possession every 25 seconds.

20. 80% of those incarcerated on federal drug charges are people of color.

(Center for American Progress)

In state prisons, 60% of all people convicted on drug charges are either African Americans or Latinos, as the war on drugs statistics by race reveal.

21. African Americans make up 29% of people arrested on drug offenses.

(Drug Policy Alliance)

Information on the prison population by race suggests that African Americans also account for 40% of all drug offenders in federal jails. On top of that, it is estimated that the average black defendant will serve approximately the same amount of time for a drug offense as a white person might for a violent crime.

22. Latinos account for almost half of all federal court cases on drug law violations, war on drugs by race statistics show.

(Drug Policy Alliance)

Even though they are only 18% of the entire US population, stats on incarceration rates by race indicate that Latinos make up 38% of all people jailed for drug offenses in federal prisons.

23. It costs about $450,000 just to put one drug dealer behind bars.

(Schaffer Library of Drug Policy)

If we add up the arrest, conviction, and housing costs for prisoners, the amount of money spent on the incarceration of drug offenders could be used to provide treatment or education for around 250 people, war on drugs cost statistics suggest.

24. States separately spent $7 billion in 2015 on incarceration for drug offenses.

(Center for American Progress)

Georgia, for instance, spent $78.6 million on the incarceration of people of color, which is 1.6 times more than the state budget for treatment for substance abuse. North Carolina, on the other hand, spent over $70 million on locking people for drug law violations, war on drugs stats put forth.

25. Overdose is the leading cause of death among individuals released from prison.

(Center for American Progress)

Rather than solving the issue of drug abuse, prison sentences make it worse. Data indicated that prisoners out of jail are 13 times more at risk of dying from an overdose during the first two weeks, while they are 129 times more likely to die from an overdose than the general population. 

The Status of War on Drugs Today

War on Drugs Statistics - Current State

26. About 45 million people in the US say that they have tried an illegal drug at least once in their lifetime.

(Stanford University)

Despite billions spent on the war on drugs, the number of drug users has not decreased significantly. Also, the DEA reports only capturing 10% of all illicit drugs out there, meaning that the drug war has a 90% failure rate.

27. In 2017, 70,237 people died of a drug overdose.

(CDC)

This is an increase of 2.6% from the war on drugs statistics in 2016. Opioids were responsible for almost 68% of all drug overdose deaths.

28. Around 500,000 people have admitted to using heroin.

(CDC)

Despite anti-drug government efforts, heroin use still remains an issue in America. There were 81,326 recorded visits to the ER in 2015 due to unintentional heroin-related poisonings, while over 15,000 people died from a heroin overdose in 2017.

29. Nearly 5 million US adults said they used cocaine in 2016.

(CDC)

This translates to about 2% of the entire US population, which is yet another war on drugs failure statistics.

30. In 2016, US drug users spent $150 billion on cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine.

(RAND Corporation) (Center for American Progress)

Out of these four drugs, marijuana accounts for the largest share with cannabis users spending $52 billion. Estimates show that the market for illicit marijuana is around the same size as the market for cocaine and methamphetamine combined. 

On the other hand, instead of fighting a war on drugs, marijuana legalization could save up to $7.7 billion, as seen by the war on drugs cost statistics

31. Colorado has made over $1 billion in sales from the legal marijuana industry this year.

(Colorado.gov)

Since it legalized marijuana in 2014, Colorado has made a total of $7 billion in sales revenue from cannabis.  

32. Recreational use of cannabis is now legal in 11 states and the District of Columbia.

(Business Insider)

Vermont was the first state to legalize cannabis possessions via its legislature, and Illinois is the 11th state to legalize cannabis sale. Legalization instead of punishment is one of the ways governments can go about ending the war on drugs.

The War On Drugs Across the World

33. In 2006, Mexico became the second country on the American continent to militarize the war on drugs.

(Washington Post) (Statista)

Since its deployment of the military to stop the drug war, it is estimated that over 250,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence and 40,000 have disappeared. In 2018 alone, 15,877 died in homicides related to organized crime.

34. The death toll in the Philippines has risen to 27,000 since 2016, Duterte war on drugs statistics show.

(Reuters

In his inaugural speech, the president said that there were 3.7 million drug addicts in the Philippines. In fact, a 2015 survey revealed that there were only 1.8 million people who had taken drugs just once in the past year. 860,000 of them had used crystal meth, while the others were cannabis users.

35. There are around 100 SIFs across the world in use today.

(Time)

Supervised injection facilities (SIFs) are one of the ways to end the war on drugs, as facts and statistics have proven these sites to be effective in reducing the number of overdoses and risks of HIV infections. They can currently be found in Canada, Australia, and Europe, while several US cities, such as Seattle and Philadelphia, are considering opening SIFs.

36. Portugal decriminalized drugs in 2001.

(Equal Times)

Although it still treats drug dealers and traffickers as criminals, users are treated as patients. This Act has contributed to a considerable decrease in HIV and hepatitis patients and drug-related crime as well, war on drugs statistics prove.

37. Uruguay became the first country to legalize the growing, sale, and smoking of cannabis.

(LatinAmerican Post)

In December 2013, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize the sale of cannabis. It is sold at $1.30 per gram in pharmacies, much lower than the $4 per gram on the illegal market. Authorities estimate that legal cannabis consumption will be twice as high as the illicit amount seized by the police, proving that legalization provides far better results than strict policies. 

FAQs

War on Drugs - FAQs

When did the war on drugs start and end?

America’s war on drugs started in June 1971. Over four decades ago, President Richard Nixon called for a war on drugs, leading an initiative aimed to stop illegal drug use, distribution, and trade by introducing stricter punishments for offenders. 

The consequences of the policies were especially disastrous for persons of color, who were discriminated against and targeted by the criminal justice system. President Nixon officially started the US war on drugs by naming them “public enemy number one.”

How did the war on drugs start?

Several acts that were passed in the 1950s and fabricated tales of the horrors of drug use only encouraged drug use. This, in turn, led to the hippie movement and increased use of marijuana and LSD in the late 1960s. The war on drugs was a very convenient excuse to deal with the antiwar protesters and the black community.

What other measures were taken as part of President Reagan’s war on drugs?

Both the D.A.R.E. program, started in 1983 in Los Angeles, and the “Just Say No” campaign, launched and endorsed by Nancy Reagan, were aimed at educating children about the dangers of drug use. From a modern perspective, both measures are considered to be complete failures.

How much money has been spent on the war on drugs since 1971?

The USA has spent a staggering $1 trillion, most of which is allocated on incarceration costs. Estimates show that America spends over $47 billion a year on the war on drugs.

Is marijuana a narcotic?

No, as not all drugs are narcotics. According to the DEA, narcotics definition refers to opium and its derivatives as well as semi-synthetic substitutes. Therefore, despite its psychoactive properties, marijuana is not a narcotic. 

Conclusion 

Was the US war on drugs a success? As the war on drugs statistics show, the answer is, “No.” What it has accomplished is making America the leading country in the world in terms of incarceration rates and creating social and racial discrimination that is not eradicated to this very day.

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