How Much is the War on Drugs Really Costing Us?

Ramathorn from Super Troopers, a key player in the War on Drugs

Ramathorn from Super Troopers, a key player in the War on Drugs | Fox Searchlight

“Mother of God”: It’s what you’re likely to sputter when looking over the incredible amount of time and resources the United States spends fighting the drug war. While we’re living in unprecedented times with marijuana legalization having become a reality, the federal government still reserves a huge amount of money for fighting drugs. Make no mistake, drugs can do damage and destroy communities, but are the enormous costs justified? That’s the key question.

The costs of the war on drugs

Taxpayer money, meant to fight criminal activity and to cover drug treatment, has been funneled to law enforcement agencies, private prison companies, and many other organizations. The payoff, from the point of the taxpayer, has been lackluster. Millions of people are in state and federal prisons on drug charges, and billions are squandered tracking down non-violent drug offenders.

The public’s patience for this has waned with time. And the proof is that a good percentage of the population actually supports legalizing drugs to some degree.

A new report, from, breaks down the surprising costs of fighting the drug war. We pulled a handful of the most interesting statistics. Let’s take a quick look at 10 numbers that detail America’s drug war costs. Fact No. 8 shows how much each inmate costs taxpayers.

1. Drug control spending since 2008: $213,489,400,000

Frank Reynolds, portrayed by Danny DeVito, lights cash on fire in an episode of FX's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Frank Reynolds, portrayed by Danny DeVito, lights cash on fire in an episode of FX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia | FX

The amount of money we spend fighting the drug war will astound you. Since 2008, American taxpayers have fronted nearly $213.5 billion on “National Drug Control Strategy efforts,” according to That figure includes funds going toward law enforcement, prevention and treatment, and resources dedicated to fighting trafficking.

2. That’s worth nearly 23 million years of college tuition

Failed test

Imagine what the government could do with $213 billion in terms of education |

That $213.5 billion could pay for a lot of things, including 22,687,503 years of college tuition. That calculation uses an average in-state tuition number of $9,410 per year. Obviously, some schools cost more than others. But nearly 23 million years of college tuition is an eye-popping figure.

3. …Or 5.7 million full-ride scholarships

Students throw their hats in the air at their college graduation

We don’t even want to mention how many students could get scholarships with that kind of money | Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

To look at that figure from another perspective, we could pay for nearly 5.7 million full-ride scholarships using that $213.5 billion. The exact number, per, is 5,671,876 four-year scholarships at a public university.

4. Drug enforcement spending has doubled since 2009

Drug war enforcement spending

Chart showing drug war enforcement spending |

Though the war on drugs has come under severe scrutiny in recent years, the amount of money earmarked for fighting drugs hasn’t slipped. In fact, in the years since former President Barack Obama took office, it has effectively doubled. For 2017, $31 billion is in the can for drug control efforts.

5. Drug use costs us more than $6,000 per second

Lost productivity due to drug use

Lost productivity and health costs due to drug use |

Drug use does present problems — and it’s not all about taxpayer money being spent fighting the problem. The economy at large loses more than $6,000 per second in health care costs and productivity. Over time that adds up in a big way.

6. We significantly underfund the judicial system

Drug court spending

Drug court spending |

Compared to how much we reserve for law enforcement efforts related to the drug war, the courts, comparatively, are underfunded. Why is this important? “Choosing not to provide greater funding for the availability of drug courts is a choice to divert more drug offenders into the prison system, ultimately incurring far greater expenses associated with housing these inmates,” the National Institute of Justice’s brief states.

7. Arrests for drugs are increasingly high


Total number of arrests related to drug use and possession |

On the topic of arrests and inmates, we arrest more people for drug offenses than for anything else. Annually, nearly 1.5 million people are arrested on drug charges.

8. Each inmate costs taxpayers significantly

Prison costs for federal inmates

An graph showing prison costs for federal inmates |

When we funnel more people into jails and prisons, the costs add up. Each inmate costs taxpayers upward of $30,000 per year — and with nearly 100,000 federal inmates in prison on drug charges, we end up shoveling a lot of money at the issue.

9. That money could pay the electric bills of 222 million Americans

A woman looking over her bills

Think about what $30 billion could cover in terms of costs for Americans |

In all, the money adds up to nearly $30 billion annually. We could pay for many other things with that sum, including utility bills for a large share of the country. “That quantity alone equates to the amount necessary to fund 222 million Americans’ electric bills for one month,” a report by the National Association for Home Builders states.

10. 7.7 million Americans report substance abuse issues

white pills spread out on a table

White pills spread out on a table |

Clearly, we spend a lot of time and money trying to police, punish, and treat people who are involved with drugs. But how big of an issue is it, really? According to, 7.7 million people self-report disorders or addictions to illicit drugs. That’s a big figure, but it’s debatable as to whether it warrants the amount of spending we earmark for fighting the drug war.

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