Abuse Numbers and Number Abuse


A new Drug Policy Alliance report by Boston University economist Jeffrey Miron takes apart one of the main numbers the government uses to justify its war on drugs: an estimate of the economic costs associated with drug abuse. The most recent estimate was $143 billion for 1998.

Miron, author of the forthcoming book Drug War Crimes: The Consequences of Prohibition, notes that many of the costs the government attributes to drug use–such as spending on enforcement, productivity losses due to incarceration, and HIV-related health care expenses–are due wholly or partly to prohibition. He argues that "at least $93.1 billion should be entirely eliminated from the economic cost of drug abuse, and another $50.4 billion should be at least partially eliminated."

More fundamentally, Miron points out that calculations like these "say nothing about whether prohibition is a good policy" because they do not compare its costs and benefits to those of an alternative approach. Even focusing just on the costs of drug abuse, he observes, "prohibition potentially increases total harm even while reducing drug consumption."