Wasting billions on drug law enforcement

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Whilst accurate figures are hard to come by, global spending on drug law enforcement certainly exceeds $100 billion each year. Given current economic conditions it is more important than ever that spending is effective and not a waste of taxpayer money.

However, the huge investments in enforcement have consistently delivered the opposite of their stated goals – to reduce drug production, supply and use. Instead they have created a vast criminal market. This in turn has substantial social and economic costs, through crime and ill health, far exceeding even the billions in enforcement spending.

There are huge opportunity costs to wasteful expenditure on this scale. As drug enforcement budgets continue to grow, other areas are being starved of funds, and cuts in government budgets are hitting public services and support for the needy.

Despite the appalling track record of failure, the level of value-for-money scrutiny applied to drug enforcement spending has been almost zero, at both national and international levels. At a time of global economic crisis, after literally trillions wasted over the last half-century, it is time to meaningfully count the real economic costs of the war on drugs.

  • Over $100 billion is spent globally each year on enforcing the war on drugs(1)
  • UNAIDS estimates that $3.2 billion is needed to meet the need for harm reduction expenditure globally in 2010; current spending is one twentieth of this(2)

"The first unintended consequence is a huge criminal black market that thrives in order to get prohibited substances from producers to consumers, whether driven by a 'supply push' or a 'demand pull'; the financial incentives to enter this market are enormous. There is no shortage of criminals competing to claw out a share of a market in which hundred-fold increases in price from production to retail are not uncommon."

Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of the UNODC 2008, 'Making drug control "fit for purpose": Building on the UNGASS decade', UNODC, 2008.

(1) Transform Drug Policy Foundation estimate, 2011: see briefing 'Estimating global spending on drug enforcement' (forthcoming).

(2) Stimson, G. et al, 'Three cents is not enough: Resourcing HIV-related Harm Reduction on a Global Basis', 2010.