For a very long time, the head of America's Office of National Drug Control Policy has been known by the unofficial nickname of "drug czar." This term of endearment is not without its detractors, of course, given its obvious ties to Imperial Russia. Having just finished studying the "drug czar's" report on "Economic Costs of Drug Abuse in the United States," I have discovered what I believe is a much more appropriate nickname: Rumpelstiltskin.
Rumpelstiltskin is the odd little fellow of fairy tale fame who knows the secret of spinning straw into gold. As the "costs" inflicted on society by users of improper intoxicants is one of the more pointed justifications in the nation's "War on Drugs," and the budget for the ONDCP, it may behoove us to scratch at the surface of the gold to see if there is really straw underneath.
The study provides estimated costs of illegal drug use for the years 1992 through 2000 and are broken down into three major categories: health related costs, productivity losses, and "other" costs. For the year 2000, the overall cost of drug use is estimated at $160.7 billion, of which $110.5 billion (68.8 percent) is attributed to productivity losses, $35.3 billion (21.9 percent) to "other" and $14.9 billion (9.3 percent) to health care related costs.
Health care related costs are fairly straightforward and include such things as out-patient drug-rehab, prevention programs and medical costs of people with AIDS, tuberculosis and hepatitis who are assumed to be in their predicaments due to injection drug use.
The category called "other" is basically the costs for drug-related crimes and includes the tab for police arresting drug users and bringing them to court, as well as the cost of placing and holding them in jails and prisons. Of the total $35 billion spent in this category during 2000, though, fully $24.8 billion (or 70.8 percent) is spent on those who have committed no act other than violating the drug laws themselves. The fact is that most drug "crime" does not involve stealing money or hurting people.
The most interesting costs are those classed as productivity losses. One could assume that being in prison would make it difficult to make money. One would be correct. The cost to society to hold drug users in jails and prisons in 2000 was estimated at $35.6 billion (22 percent of the total). Again, this number is inflated by the fact that fully 70 percent of these losses are due to holding people in jail who have committed no act against another or their property. Thus, approximately $24.9 billion in lost wages due to incarceration is entirely because society has chosen to jail those guilty of nothing more than using the "wrong" intoxicant.
The next biggest cost cited in productivity losses is that attributed to "crime careers." While the ONDCP study never explains exactly what this is supposed to mean, the study claims the figure is derived by calculating the total number of chronic "hardcore" cocaine and heroin users, and assuming that they are committing crimes to get money to buy their drugs. This figure totals $27 billion for 2000, and works out to just over $5,000 per hardcore user per year. This is one-fourth the approximate $20,000 it costs to hold someone in a prison cell.
The next most expensive component of productivity losses is something called "drug abuse related illness," which weighs in at a whopping $25.4 billion (nearly 16 percent of the grand total). What makes this cost particularly interesting is how it is derived: it is based on the number of people who have used cocaine or marijuana more than 100 times over the course of their lifetimes. As the study itself says with regard to this particular calculation: "Also, changes in the number of individuals using marijuana and cocaine for more than 100 days may not be closely related to drug abuse related illness." Yet, it is included anyway, despite its entirely bogus pedigree, and represents the third largest categorization of overall costs, behind only incarceration and crime careers.
Lastly, there is a calculation of lost productivity due to premature death. For 2000, this totaled up to $18.3 billion (11.4 percent of the overall total). The figure is based on a list of drug-induced deaths multiplied by estimated lifetime earnings of the victims. The study says: "This list includes diagnoses representing abuse of and dependence on psychoactive drugs as well as accidental and intentional (i.e., suicide) poisoning by a broad range of drugs and medications-psychoactive and otherwise." No breakdown is given for those deaths attributed to only illegal substances.
In summary, some $49.7 billion (31 percent of the total) of the annual cost to society of "illegal" drug use is due entirely to the drug laws themselves (with no other crime involved), while another $45.3 billion (28 percent of the total) - premature death and crime careers - is specious at best, and $25.4 billion (15.8 percent of the total) - drug abuse related illness - is an entirely invented "cost." Let's not forget that the budget for the ONDCP adds another $20 billion to the costs we are paying to wage this war on our fellow citizens.
"To-day I bake, to-morrow brew, the next I'll have the young queen's child. Ha, glad am I that no one knew that Rumpelstiltskin I am styled."
Written June 25, 2002
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