Facing Facts: The War on Drugs Can Be Won

Updated on July 5, 2017

Waging War on the American People

As of the first quarter of 2016, roughly twenty-four million Americans were struggling with addiction. Every single person in the United States has been affected by addiction in one way or another. Addiction is not a disease with prejudice; it can strike anyone, regardless of age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, religion, level of education and/or income bracket (Kentucky). In the United States, this debilitating disease has been regarded as a moral lacking on the part of the addicted individual and has been criminalized, rather than being treated as the medical condition that it is. This has been due to the “War on Drugs,” which was started by President Richard Nixon in 1971, and then doubly enforced by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s. The prison population in 1971 was roughly 200,000 inmates. Today, the prison population is well over 2,000,000 inmates; nearly half are for drug-related offenses. In 2014, there were 1.4 million drug arrests in the United States; 80% of which were for simple possession charges, and of those, approximately 50% were for marijuana (Combs).

In states across the country, the “War on Drugs” and the negative affects it has on the prison system, the lives of those charged and on the communities’ theses offenders come from and return to are finally being looked at through the lens the medical crisis it truly is rather than as the criminality it has been regarded as for the last forty years.

The Price of Losing the War; The Savings of Treating the Disease

One of the biggest concerns for taxpayers is the safety in the community in which they live. Many believe that by imprisoning the criminally-inclined drug abusers that they are making their communities safer – which, in the short-term maybe true – while a drug addict is incarcerated any given community is that much “safer” from that abuser. However, the costs of incarceration are quite expensive, and the time spent imprisoned is relatively short – on average less than 24 months – then the untreated addict returns to the community, disease unchecked, ready to make that community “unsafe” again. By providing medical treatment to the disease of addiction, not only are communities safer in the short term, but the recovering addict can become a contributing member of society and improve the standard of living for everyone. For example, in the Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison (DTAP) program in Brooklyn, New York, addicted defendants can plead guilty to their charges, and then enter an inpatient community treatment program, lasting no more than 2 years as a substitute to accepting a traditional prison sentence. As seen in a 2004 evaluation of DTAP by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (NCASA) at Columbia University, the program achieved substantial success in lowering recidivism rates and drug usage, increasing employment potential for participants, and facilitating significant savings when compared to the cost of incarceration. In addition, the evaluation found that the average annual costs of participating in DTAP, including residential treatment, job and skills training, and support services was $32,974 – which, when compared to the cost of incarceration – approximately $64,338 if the participant had been sent to serve the average term of imprisonment for 25 months – provides a fifty percent savings to taxpayers (McVay, Schiraldi, and Ziedenberg).

The cost of incarceration versus the cost of providing addiction treatment is only the very pinnacle of cost-effectiveness that this method of dealing with drug-related crimes offers taxpayers throughout the nation. There are “unseen” savings such as employment, tax revenues, public health, and crime reduction, and benefits to utilizing drug treatment programs over incarceration for drug-related offenders. In a ground-breaking cost benefits analysis, back in the 1990’s, the RAND Corporation compared the efficacy and costs of enforcing the “War on Drugs” versus treatment as an alternative to incarceration. Their research revealed that for every dollar spent on drug treatment, a savings of seven and a half dollars was seen in regained productivity and reduced crime. “An additional cocaine-control dollar generates societal cost savings of 15 cents if used for source-country control, 32 cents if used for interdiction, and 52 cents if used for domestic enforcement. In contrast, the savings from treatment programs are larger than control costs: an additional cocaine control dollar generates societal cost savings of $7.48 if used for treatment,” as stated in Controlling Cocaine, a 1994 study by the RAND Corporation (Rydell and Everingham). In another decisive RAND Corporation study (1997) comparing the advantages provided to different law enforcement approaches to treatment for serious cocaine users discovered that treatment is three times more effective than mandatory minimum prison sentences (Caulkins et al.). In short, The RAND Corporation proved that drug treatment is the most cost-effective way to put an end to the failed “War on Drugs,” and to finally get the upper hand on the epidemic of addiction, and all the negative impacts it has on society.

Getting It Done Right

There are many existing programs throughout the United States that treat the issue of addiction as an illness and not as a crime. The benefits to these programs are vast and varied. Any one of these programs, or a combination of several, would improve and could correct many problems that we face as a nation each year; crime, prison overcrowding, the sluggish economy, etc.… Here are just a few examples, which have already been successful, that could be implemented on a nation level:

The California Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act of 2000 (SAPCA) allows people convicted of low-level, non-violent drug crimes to go to community-based treatment, training and/or education while on probation, as an alternative to prison. An evaluation of this program has shown that for every $1 spent on funding SAPCA, there was a fiscal savings of 250% - resulting in a net savings of $173.3 million annually to state and local governments (Alliance).
In the oldest drug court in all the nation, a Portland, Oregon study found that over the span of a decade, the program had save nearly $9 million for taxpayers. Additional cost savings of $79 million were seen from several beneficial social outcomes, including a 31% decrease in rearrests (Alliance).
South Dakota’s 24/7 Sobriety Program requires participants, people convicted of their second or subsequent DUI offense, to abstain from using alcohol and/or illegal substances, and are vigorously monitored using state-of-the-art technology, including the SCRAM transdermal alcohol monitoring bracelet and the “drug patch.” This program has been herald as a “tremendous success” in keeping participants sober and in reducing DUI recidivism (Leidholt).
Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) Program provides swift, certain, consistent, and immediate jail time for violations of probation agreements for drug offenders. The punishment fits the crime that violates the probation. For example, if a participant has a positive drug test at their scheduled meeting with their Probation Officer and admits to the drug use, they are immediately sent to jail for two days. If, instead, that same participant, had a positive drug test at their scheduled meeting, but denied their drug use, they would be arrested and sentenced to fifteen days. Finally, if that same offender failed to show for their scheduled meeting with their Probation Officer, and it was necessary to issue a warrant for their arrest and then have Law Enforcement Officers go and track down the offender, the punishment would be immediate arrest and thirty days in prison. This program has been considered successful because participants in the HOPE probations were using drugs less often and getting arrested for new crimes less often. HOPE probationers were also going to state prison less often and for shorter periods of time (Almt).
Any one of these programs, or any combination of some or all of them, would have a positive impact on the population of the nation. Taxpayer money saved, improved living situations for many communities across the country, improved productivity in the workforce are just of few on the monumental positive impacts treating drug addiction as a disease rather than a moral failing would have on the United States. It is time to admit we have lost the “War on Drugs,” and time to start caring for these ill individuals as we would have they had any other disease. Addiction affects every American life. The status quo does not work. It is beyond time to do something that does.


Alliance, Drug Policy. “Cost Review: Drug Abuse, Treatment, Incarceration.” www.drugpolicy.org. 2006. Web. 19 Sept. 2016.

Almt, Steven S. "HOPE Probation and The New Drug Court: A Powerful Combination." Minnesota Law Review 99.5 (2015): 1665-1696. Academic Search Complete. Web. 20 Oct. 2016.

Caulkins, Jonathan P., et al. Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentences: Throwing Away the Key or the Taxpayers’ Money. Santa Monica, CA: The RAND Corporation, 1997. Web. 22 Oct. 2016.

Combs, Sean. “The War on Drugs Is an Epic Fail.” NY Times, 15 Sept. 2016. Video.

"Kentucky: The Facts About Addiction Disorders." US Official News. (April 4, 2016 Monday): 543 words. LexisNexis Academic. Web. Date Accessed: 2016/10/23.

Leidholt, Mike, Marty J. Jackley, and Stephen K. Talpins. "Justice Solutions: The South Dakota 24/7 Sobriety Program." Sheriff 63.4 (2011): 10-11. Criminal Justice Abstracts with Full Text. Web. 20 Oct. 2016.

McVay, Dough, Vincent Schiraldi, and Jason Ziedenberg. Treatment or Incarceration? National and State Findings on the Efficacy and Cost Savings of Drug Treatment Versus Imprisonment. Washington, DC: Justice Policy Institute, Jan. 2004. PDF File. 23 Oct. 2016.

Rydell, C. P., and S. S. Everingham. Controlling Cocaine. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1994. Web. 23 Oct. 2016. Prepared for the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the United States Army 1994.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.


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