Data: High Numbers

"Drug Abuse Cost to Society Set at $97.7 Billion," announces NIDA Notes, a publication of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Says NIDA Director Alan Leshner, "We must publicize these cost-to-society estimates to educate people that drug abuse is enormously expensive to the entire Nation." And no doubt they will. But for all its seeming precision, the estimate is mostly an exercise in conceptual confusion.

The biggest component of the estimate is "productivity effects," a category that includes impaired productivity attributed to drug use (based on questionable assumptions), income lost because of "drug-related" deaths (most of which are not caused by drugs themselves), and "legitimate" income foregone by drug dealers and prostitutes (as if illicit earnings have no value). The researchers also count money that would have been earned by offenders had they not been imprisoned, thereby attributing a cost of suppressing drug use to drug use itself.

That last trick is even clearer in the "crime" category, which includes money spent on drug law enforcement, plus the costs of theft and violence fostered by prohibition. Similarly, "health care expenditures" include drug treatment, often mandated by the government, and costs associated with AIDS and hepatitis, which spread more readily because of anti-paraphernalia policies that encourage needle sharing.

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