The United States has been fighting the “War on Drugs” for decades. Spending on drug enforcement now totals about $35 billion per year, yet drug abuse continues.  

Enforcement Has Not
Reduced Drug Abuse

In Washington State, arrests for drug offenses have increased by 345 percent over the past 15 years. Increasing arrests has not reduced drug abuse. Interestingly, rates of drug use actually declined before intensification of enforcement and incarceration, then increased after the imposition of harsher criminal sanctions in the 1980’s.

Legal and Medical Professionals Recognize the Drug War Failure

The King County Bar Association (KCBA) recently released a report after months of study recommending that the focus be changed from criminal sanctions to prevention and treatment.

The KCBA’s report was endorsed by the Washington State Bar Association, the Washington State Medical Association and other mainstream professional organizations. The 125 page KCBA report, on which this article is based, is accessible at

Drug Offenders Serve More Time than Violent Criminals

Besides not stopping drug abuse, the War on Drugs incarcerates the wrong people. Ninety percent of federal drug convictions are for non-violent offenses.

Drug offenses are frequently punished more severely than violent offenses. For instance, in Washington the average sentence for heroin or cocaine delivery in a school zone is over 5 1/2 years, whereas the average sentence for first degree child molestation is less than 3 1/2 years. One doesn’t need to endorse this kind of activity to be concerned with how it compares with crimes of violence.

Alcohol and Tobacco:
Drug War Terrorists

Speaking of violence, the drug most associated with violence is alcohol. It is a factor in over 40% of murders and over 50% of assaults.

In Washington, alcohol-related assaults outnumber assaults related to other drugs by a 13 to one margin.

Alcohol and tobacco are largely excluded from the “War on Drugs.” Yet each year in the U.S. over 110,000 people die of alcohol related causes, and over 430,000 die from tobacco. Interestingly, no deaths have ever been recorded as a direct result of marijuana, yet it is illegal.

Erosion of Civil Rights

In the “War on Drugs” many people who were never convicted of a crime lost their homes, cars, and other property through civil forfeiture. These laws reverse the basic concept of “innocent until proven guilty.”

Washington State recently amended our laws so that the prosecution, rather than the accused person, has the burden to prove property is related to drug activity. However, it is still possible for property to be taken without a criminal conviction.

Many non-violent drug offenders are considered felons. People who are convicted of felonies in Washington lose their rights to vote, to hold public office, and to serve as a juror.

Students who are convicted of drug charges (even simple possession) lose their eligibility for federal financial aid and guaranteed student loans. No other criminal offense— including murder or rape— has this effect.

The “War on Drugs”
Wastes Money

Here in Washington State, where government is increasingly restricted in how it can raise money, it seems logical to begin thinking about how we can save money.

According to the Washington State Department of Corrections (WSDOC), as of December 2001, over 20 percent of its prisoners were incarcerated for drug related crimes. WSDOC’s 1989-91 budget was $428 million. By 2003-05, WSDOC projects its operating and capital costs to grow to over $1.4 billion. 20 percent of 1.4 billion is $280 million. Literally hundreds of millions of dollars are being wasted in Washington State alone.

Imprisonment is only one aspect of criminal enforcement. Police, prosecution, public defenders and the courts also expend significant funds related to the “War on Drugs.” Approximately 40 percent of all King County Court filings are controlled substances cases. These filings slow down the legal process for other cases.

Treatment Works

Reallocating this money doesn’t mean giving in to drug abuse. Treatment can work.

A study by the RAND Corporation funded in part by the Office of Drug Control Policy and the US Army found that every dollar spent on domestic law enforcement and incarceration reduced the costs associated with crime and lost productivity by 52 cents. This is a net loss of 48 cents. By comparison, every dollar spent on treatment resulted in $7.46 in reduced crime and lost productivity, a net gain of $6.46.

King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng has cited this study in concluding simply, “drug treatment works.” Now we need to admit that criminalization of drugs does not work.

Legalization Makes Sense

One of the goals of the War on Drugs is to reduce the supply of drugs. If the supply was decreasing, economic theory says that the price be increasing. Over the past decade, the price of cocaine has fallen about 50 percent and the price of heroin around 70 percent. Even with this price drop, the United Nations estimates international illicit drug trade at around $400 billion per year.

If drugs are legalized, clearly they should be regulated and taxed. Since there would be significant savings from enforcement and incarceration, abuse prevention and treatment programs could be funded and much of the tax revenue could be used for other needs.

Federal Laws Prevent
Positive Change

Federal drug laws are so pervasive that states are largely unable to develop their own drug control strategies.

Although the legal and medical establishment in Washington State is increasingly willing to rebuild our failed regulatory drug control structure, federal laws must be amended before significant changes can occur. As result, change will be slow.

Stop the War

Drug abuse can clearly cause significant problems for individuals and society. However, the “War on Drugs” has been a failure. It is time to stop the war and begin treating the wounded.


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