Ending the War on Drugs: By the Numbers

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See also: Ending the War on Drugs by Betsy Pearl and Maritza Perez


President Richard Nixon called for a war on drugs in 1971, setting in motion a tough-on-crime policy agenda that continues to produce disastrous results today. Policymakers at all levels of government passed harsher sentencing laws and increased enforcement actions, especially for low-level drug offenses. The consequences of these actions are magnified for communities of color, which are disproportionately targeted for enforcement and face discriminatory practices across the justice system. Today, researchers and policymakers alike agree that the war on drugs is a failure. This fact sheet summarizes research findings that capture the need to replace the war on drugs with a fairer, more effective model that treats substance misuse as a public health issue—not a criminal justice issue.

The war on drugs

  • Every 25 seconds, someone in America is arrested for drug possession.1 The number of Americans arrested for possession has tripled since 1980, reaching 1.3 million arrests per year in 2015—six times the number of arrests for drug sales.2
  • One-fifth of the incarcerated population—or 456,000 individuals—is serving time for a drug charge.3 Another 1.15 million people are on probation and parole for drug-related offenses.4
  • Incarcerating people for drug-related offenses has been shown to have little impact on substance misuse rates.5 Instead, incarceration is linked with increased mortality from overdose. In the first two weeks after their release from prison, individuals are almost 13 times more likely to die than the general population.6 The leading cause of death among recently released individuals is overdose.7 During that period, individuals are at a 129 percent greater risk of dying from an overdose than the general public.8
  • Incarceration has a negligible effect on public safety. Crime rates have trended downward since 1990, and researchers attribute 75 to 100 percent of these reductions to factors other than incarceration.9

Racial disparities

  • Black Americans are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana charges than their white peers.10 In fact, black Americans make up nearly 30 percent of all drug-related arrests, despite accounting for only 12.5 percent of all substance users.11
  • Black Americans are nearly six times more likely to be incarcerated for drug-related offenses than their white counterparts, despite equal substance usage rates.12 Almost 80 percent of people serving time for a federal drug offense are black or Latino.13 In state prisons, people of color make up 60 percent of those serving time for drug charges.14
  • In the federal system, the average black defendant convicted of a drug offense will serve nearly the same amount of time (58.7 months) as a white defendant would for a violent crime (61.7 months).15
  • People of color account for 70 percent of all defendants convicted of charges with a mandatory minimum sentence. Prosecutors are twice as likely to pursue a mandatory minimum sentence for a black defendant than a white defendant charged with the same offense,16 and black defendants are less likely to receive relief from mandatory minimums.17 On average, defendants subject to mandatory minimums spend five times longer in prison than those convicted of other offenses.18

Economic impact

  • Since 1971, the war on drugs has cost the United States an estimated $1 trillion. In 2015, the federal government spent an estimated $9.2 million every day to incarcerate people charged with drug-related offenses—that’s more than $3.3 billion annually.19
  • State governments spent another $7 billion in 2015 to incarcerate individuals for drug-related charges.20 North Carolina, for example, spent more than $70 million incarcerating people for drug possession.21 And Georgia spent $78.6 million just to lock up people of color for drug offenses—1.6 times more than the state’s budget current for substance use treatment services.22
  • In contrast, marijuana legalization would save roughly $7.7 billion per year in averted enforcement costs and would yield an additional $6 billion in tax revenue. The net total—$13.7 billion—could send more than 650,000 students to public universities every year. 23

The opioid epidemic

  • In 2016, 11.8 million Americans misused prescription opioids or heroin.24 Around 3.6 percent of adolescents (ages 12 to 17) and 7.3 percent of young adults (ages 18 to 25) reported opioid misuse in the last year.25
  • Every 16 minutes, a person in America dies from an opioid overdose.26 In 2016, 42,249 Americans died from opioid overdoses27—more than the number of people killed in motor vehicle accidents.28
  • Between 2014 and 2016, opioid overdose deaths increased by approximately 48 percent nationwide. Though whites have the highest rates of fatal opioid overdoses, fatalities are on the rise among communities of color. During the same period, opioid deaths rose by nearly 53 percent among Latinos and 84 percent among blacks.29
  • Americans account for less than 5 percent of the world’s population but consume 80 percent of all opioids produced globally.30 Roughly 1 out of every 100 American adults—or 2.4 million people—have an opioid-use disorder.31
  • The opioid epidemic costs the United States an estimated $504 billion per year, including the costs to the health care and justice systems as well as the economic impact of premature fatalities.32
  • Doctors wrote 259 million opiate prescriptions in 201233—enough for every American adult to have their own prescription, with 19 million to spare.34 Among women, prescription painkiller overdose deaths jumped 400 percent from 1999 to 2010.35
  • Opioid fatality rates jumped by 28 percent from 2015 to 2016,36 in large part due to a surge in overdoses on fentanyl—a synthetic opioid that is up to 50 times stronger than heroin.37 For the first time, synthetic opioids were the leading cause of all drug-related deaths, claiming some 20,000 lives in 2016 alone.38

Impact of interventions

Harm reduction

  • Many jurisdictions are reducing fatalities by expanding the availability of naloxone, an opioid overdose reversal drug. Every month, first responders in New York City save 180 lives by administering naloxone.39 A Massachusetts program reduced opioid-related deaths by 11 percent by distributing naloxone to individuals at risk of overdose, as well as to their family, friends, and service providers.40
  • Syringe access programs provide people with clean injection equipment to prevent syringe sharing, resulting in significant reductions in the incidence of blood-borne diseases. After implementing syringe access services, Washington state documented an 80 percent drop in new diagnoses of hepatitis B and hepatitis C.41 And in the District of Columbia, syringe access programs were credited with a 70 percent decrease in new HIV infections over two years, saving $44.3 million in lifetime health care costs.42 Nationally, researchers estimate that syringe access programs yield a return on investment of $7.58 for every dollar spent.43
  • More than 60 international cities now operate supervised injection facilities (SIFs).44 SIFs are safe, hygienic places where individuals can inject preobtained drugs under medical supervision. These facilities have proven successful in connecting individuals with treatment and social services, as well as reducing overdose fatalities and blood-borne illnesses. Over the course of two years, a safe injection site in Vancouver, British Columbia, for example, was associated with a 35 percent reduction in overdose fatalities in its immediate vicinity.45 Safe injection sites also increased connections to substance use services. In the year after establishing the facility, Vancouver saw a 30 percent increase in entry into treatment among safe injection users, compared to the year before the site opened.46
  • A number of American cities—including Philadelphia, Seattle, and New York—are working to implement SIFs. Philadelphia estimated that SIFs would save up to 76 lives every year and avert up to 18 cases of HIV and 213 cases of hepatitis C.47 In New York, research found that SIFs would prevent an estimated 130 overdoses and save up to $7 million in health care costs annually.48

Drug courts

  • Nationwide, there are more than 3,100 drug courts. These are specialized court programs that can reduce recidivism by sentencing defendants to substance use treatment, supportive services, and supervision and monitoring instead of incarceration.49 Interviews with drug court participants show significantly lower rates of reoffending (40 percent), as compared to comparison groups (53 percent).50 Specifically, drug court participation reduced future incidences of drug-related offenses, as well as property crimes.51
  • A longitudinal study of drug courts in Multnomah County, Oregon found that the program had long-lasting benefits. Fourteen years after enrolling in the program, drug court participants were 24 percent less likely to be rearrested for a drug-related offense and nearly 30 percent less likely to recidivate overall.52
  • A national evaluation of drug courts found that participants were 26 percent less likely to report substance use after completing the program than individuals processed through traditional judicial systems.53 Drug court participants were also less likely than nonparticipants to report unmet educational, employment, and financial service needs.54
  • Drug court completion rates vary significantly by program, ranging from 30 percent to 70 percent.55 The low completion rates among participants suggest that drug court programming may not provide the necessary support for some individuals. Successful graduation is also less common among communities of color. In some drug courts, failure rates for black participants exceed that of white participants by 30 percent or more.56 Notably, unsuccessful participants are often sentenced to long periods of incarceration, casting doubt on the model’s capacity to reduce entanglement with the criminal justice system.57

Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion

  • Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) programs allow officers to divert individuals to treatment or social services, rather making low-level drug arrests. The model was pioneered in Seattle, where it has yielded positive results. Individuals diverted through the LEAD program were 58 percent less likely to be rearrested, as compared to similar individuals processed through the criminal justice system.58
  • LEAD is associated with significant increases in housing and economic stability. After being referred to LEAD, participants were 33 percent more likely to have an income or benefits, 46 percent more likely to be employed or in vocational training, and 89 percent more likely to obtain permanent housing, as compared to the month prior to referral.59 For every month individuals had stable housing, they were 17 percent less likely to be arrested.60 Every month of employment was associated with a 41 percent decrease in likelihood of arrest.61
  • On average, LEAD participants spent 39 fewer days in jail per year and were 87 percent less likely to be incarcerated in prison than comparison groups.62
  • For each participant, LEAD was associated with a $2,100 annual reduction in criminal and legal system costs. The average annual cost per nonparticipant increased by $5,961 in the same period.63

Betsy Pearl is the campaign manager for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center for American Progress. 


  1. Human Rights Watch and ACLU, “Every 25 Seconds: The Human Toll of Criminalizing Drug Use in the United States” (2016), available at https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/10/12/every-25-seconds/human-toll-criminalizing-drug-use-united-states.
  2. Peter Wagner and Wendy Sawyer, “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2018” (Northampton, MA: Prison Policy Initiative, 2018), available at https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2018.html.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Probation and Parole in the United States, 2016 NCJ 251148 (U.S. Department of Justice, 2018), p.3 table 1, p.17 table 4, p.24 table 8, available at https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/ppus16.pdf. 
  5. Vera Institute of Justice, “The State of Opioids,” available at https://www.vera.org/state-of-justice-reform/2017/the-state-of-opioids (last accessed May 2018).
  6. Ingrid A. Binswanger, Marc F. Stern, and Thomas D. Koepsell, “Release from Prison—A High Risk of Death for Former Inmates,” New England Journal of Medicine 356 (2) (2007): 157-
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Don Stemen, “The Prison Paradox: More Incarceration Will Not Make Us Safer” (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2017), available at https://www.vera.org/publications/for-the-record-prison-paradox-incarceration-not-safer.
  10. Altaf Rahamatulla, “The War on Drugs has failed. What’s next?,” Ford Foundation Equals Change Blog, March 23, 2017, available at https://www.fordfoundation.org/ideas/equals-change-blog/posts/the-war-on-drugs-has-failed-what-s-next/.
  11.  NAACP, “Criminal Justice Fact Sheet,” available at http://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/ (last accessed May 2018).
  12. Ibid.
  13. Drug Policy Alliance, “Race and the Drug War,” available at http://www.drugpolicy.org/issues/race-and-drug-war (last accessed May 2018).
  14. Ibid.
  15. Marc Mauer and Ryan S. King, “A 25-Year Quagmire: The War on Drugs and Its Impact on American Society” (Washington: The Sentencing Project, 2007), available at https://www.sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/A-25-Year-Quagmire-The-War-On-Drugs-and-Its-Impact-on-American-Society.pdf.
  16. Drug Policy Alliance, “Race and the Drug War.”
  17. U.S. Sentencing Commission, “Quick Facts: Mandatory Minimum Penalties” (2017), available at https://www.ussc.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/research-and-publications/quick-facts/Quick_Facts_Mand_Mins_FY17.pdf.
  18. Ibid.
  19. In fiscal year 2015, the average cost of incarceration per federal inmate was $31,977.65 ($87.61 per day). In calendar year 2015, 105,000 individuals were incarcerated in Federal prisons for drug related offenses. For cost estimates, see: Bureau of Prisons, Annual Determination of Average Cost of Incarceration, 81 Fed. Reg. 46957 (US Department of Justice, 2016), p. 46957, document 2016-17040. For estimates of federal inmates, see: Peter Wagner and Bernadette Rabuy, “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2015” (Northampton, MA: Prison Policy Initiative, 2015), available at https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2015.html.
  20. Across 45 state correctional systems, the average annual cost per inmate in 2015 was $33,274. In 2015, 221,000 individuals were incarcerated in state prisons for drug-related offenses. For cost estimates, see: Christian Henderson and Ruth Delaney, “The Price of Prisons: Examining State Spending Trends, 2010–2015 – Table 1” (New York, NY: Vera Institute of Justice, 2017) available at  https://www.vera.org/publications/price-of-prisons-2015-state-spending-trends. For estimates of state incarceration population, see: Wagner and Rabuy, “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2015.”
  21. In 2015, the average annual cost of incarceration per inmate in North Carolina was $30,180. On June 30, 2015, North Carolina’s correctional population included 2,428 inmates incarcerated for nontrafficking drug offenses. For cost estimates, see: Henderson and Delaney, “The Price of Prisons: Examining State Spending Trends, 2010–2015.” For estimates of North Carolina’s incarceration population, see: North Carolina Department of Public Safety, “Automated System Query Custom Offender Reports,” available at  http://webapps6.doc.state.nc.us/apps/asqExt/ASQ (last accessed May 2018).
  22. In 2015, the average annual cost of incarceration per inmate in Georgia was $19,977. In 2015, the Georgia Department of Corrections admitted 3,762 black Americans and 172 Hispanic Americans for drug offenses. Georgia’s fiscal year 2018 budget allots $49 million for “addictive disease and substance abuse services.”  For cost estimates, see: Henderson and Delaney, “The Price of Prisons: Examining State Spending Trends, 2010–2015.” For estimates of Georgia’s prison admissions, see: Georgia Department of Corrections, “Inmate Statistical Profile: Inmates Admitted During CY2015 for Any Drug Crime,” available at http://www.dcor.state.ga.us/sites/all/files/pdf/Research/Annual/Profile_inmate_admissions_any_drug_CY2015.pdf (last accessed May 2018). For Georgia’s fiscal year 2018 budget for substance use services, see: Laura Harker, “Georgia Health Budget Primer for State Fiscal Year 2018” (Atlanta: Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, 2017) available at https://gbpi.org/2017/georgia-health-budget-primer-state-fiscal-year-2018/.
  23. The College Board estimates the average annual tuition, fees, and room and board charges for in-state public four-year institutions to be $20,770. For tax revenue and savings associated with marijuana legalization, see: Ezekiel Edwarts and Rebecca McCray, “Hundreds of Economists: Marijuana Prohibition Costs Billions, Legalization Would Earn Billions,” ACLU Blog, April 26, 2012 available at https://www.aclu.org/blog/mass-incarceration/hundreds-economists-marijuana-prohibition-costs-billions-legalization-would. For estimates of college costs, see: College Board, “Trends in College Pricing 2017” (2017), available at https://trends.collegeboard.org/college-pricing.
  24. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “National survey reveals the scope of behavioral health across the nation,” Press release, September 7, 2017, available at https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2017/09/07/national-survey-reveals-scope-behavioral-health-across-nation.html.
  25. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Opioids and Adolescents,” available at https://www.hhs.gov/ash/oah/adolescent-development/substance-use/drugs/opioids/index.html (last accessed June 2018).
  26. Vera Institute of Justice, “The State of Opioids.”
  27. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “The Opioid Epidemic By the Numbers,” available at https://www.hhs.gov/opioids/sites/default/files/2018-01/opioids-infographic.pdf (last accessed May 2018).
  28. U.S. Department of Transportation, “USDOT Releases 2016 Fatal Traffic Crash Data,” Press release, October 6, 2017, available at https://www.nhtsa.gov/press-releases/usdot-releases-2016-fatal-traffic-crash-data.
  29. Martha Bebinger, “What Explains The Rising Overdose Rate Among Latinos?,” NPR, May 16, 2018, available at https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/05/16/609814648/what-explains-the-rising-overdose-rate-among-latinos.
  30. Laxmaiah Manchikanti and Angelie Singh, “Therapeutic Opioids: A Ten-Year Perspective on the Complexities and Complications of the Escalating Use, Abuse, and Nonmedical Use of Opioids,” Pain Physician 11(2 Suppl) (2008): S63-88.
  31. The Council of Economic Advisers, The Underestimated Cost of the Opioid Crisis (2017), available at https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/whitehouse.gov/files/images/The%20Underestimated%20Cost%20of%20the%20Opioid%20Crisis.pdf.
  32. Ibid.
  33. American Society of Addiction Medicine, “Opioid Addiction 2016 Facts & Figures,” available at https://www.asam.org/docs/default-source/advocacy/opioid-addiction-disease-facts-figures.pdf (last accessed May 2018).
  34. Based on 2012 estimates, the adult population (ages 18 and older) of America was 240,291,024. See Annie E. Casey Foundation, “Total population by child and adult populations,” available at https://datacenter.kidscount.org/data/tables/99-total-population-by-child-and-adult (last accessed May 2018).
  35. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Prescription Painkiller Overdoses,” available at https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/prescriptionpainkilleroverdoses/ (last accessed May 2018).
  36. Christopher Ingraham, “CDC releases grim new opioid overdose figures: ‘We’re talking about more than an exponential increase,’” The Washington Post Wonkblog, December 21, 2017, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/12/21/cdc-releases-grim-new-opioid-overdose-figures-were-talking-about-more-than-an-exponential-increase.
  37. S. Drug Enforcement Agency, “FAQs—Fentanyl and Fentanyl-Related Substances,” available at https://www.dea.gov/druginfo/fentanyl-faq.shtml (last accessed May 2018).
  38. Ingraham, “CDC releases grim new opioid overdose figures.”
  39. The City of New York Office of the Mayor, “Healing NYC: Preventing Overdoses, Saving Lives” (2017), available at https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/home/downloads/pdf/reports/2017/HealingNYC-Report.pdf.
  40. Alexander Y. Walley and others, “Opioid overdose rates and implementation of overdose education and nasal naloxone distribution in Massachusetts: interrupted time series analysis,” BMJ 356 (2013): f174.
  41. Monica S. Ruiz, Allison O’Rourke and Sean T. Allen, “Impact Evaluation of a Policy Intervention for HIV Prevention in Washington, DC,” AIDS and Behavior 20 (1) (2016): 22-
  42. Ibid.
  43. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Access to clean syringes,” available at https://www.cdc.gov/policy/hst/hi5/cleansyringes/index.html (last accessed May 2018).
  44. Drug Policy Alliance, “Supervised Injection Facilities,” available at http://www.drugpolicy.org/issues/supervised-injection-facilities (last accessed May 2018).
  45. Mary Clare Kennedy, Mohammad Karamouzian and Thomas Kerr, “Public Health and Public Order Outcomes Associated with Supervised Drug Consumption Facilities: a Systematic Review,” Current HIV/AIDS Reports 14 (5) (2017): 161-
  46. Ibid.
  47. Sharon Larson and others, “Supervised Consumption Facilities—Review of the Evidence” (Wynnewood, PA: Main Line Health Center for Population Health Research, 2017) available at https://dbhids.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/OTF_LarsonS_PHLReportOnSCF_Dec2017.pdf.
  48. The City of New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, “Overdose Prevention in New York City: Supervised Injection as a Strategy to Reduce Opioid Overdose and Public Injection” (2018), available at https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/doh/downloads/pdf/public/supervised-injection-report.pdf.
  49. Office of Justice Programs, Drug Courts (U.S. Department of Justice, 2018), available at https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/238527.pdf.
  50. Shelli B. Rossman and others, “The Multi-Site Adult Drug Court Evaluation: Executive Summary” (Washington: The Urban Institute, 2013) available at https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/237108.pdf.
  51. Ibid.
  52. Michael W. Finigan, Shannon M. Carey and Anton Cox, “Impact of a Mature Drug Court Over 10 Years of Operation: Recidivism and Costs” (Portland, OR: NPC Research, 2007) available at https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/219225.pdf.
  53. Ibid.
  54. Rossman and others, “The Multi-Site Adult Drug Court Evaluation.”
  55. Government Accountability Office, “Adult Drug Courts: Evidence Indicates Recidivism Reductions and Mixed Results for Other Outcomes” GAO-05-219, Report to Congressional Committees, available at https://www.gao.gov/assets/250/245453.html, February 2005.
  56. Michael M. O’Hear, “Rethinking Drug Courts: Restorative Justice as a Response to Racial Injustice,” Stanford Law and Policy Review 20 (2) (2009): 463-
  57. Jim Parsons, “Minimizing Harm: Public Health and Justice System Responses to Drug Use and the Opioid Crisis” (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2017) available at https://storage.googleapis.com/vera-web-assets/downloads/Publications/for-the-record-public-health-justice-system-responses-opioid-crisis/legacy_downloads/Minimizing-Harm-Evidence-Brief.pdf.
  58. Susan E. Collins, Heather S. Lonczak, and Seema Clifasefi, “LEAD Program Evaluation: Recidivism Report” (Seattle: University of Washington Harm Reduction Research and Treatment Lab, 2015) available at http://static1.1.sqspcdn.com/static/f/1185392/26121870/1428513375150/LEAD_EVALUATION_4-7-15.pdf?token=3Yt3f9rd%2BwqvJvZhv1xvUGjlIQA%3D.
  59. Seema Clifasefi, Heather S. Lonczak and Susan E. Collins, “LEAD Program Evaluation: The Impact of LEAD on Housing, Employment and Income/Benefits” (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Harm Reduction Research and Treatment Lab, 2016) available at http://static1.1.sqspcdn.com/static/f/1185392/27047605/1464389327667/housing_employment_evaluation_final.PDF.
  60. Ibid. 
  61. Ibid. 
  62. Susan E. Collins, Heather S. Lonczak and Seema Clifasefi, “LEAD Program Evaluation: ReCriminal Justice and Legal System Utilization and Associated Costs” (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Harm Reduction Research and Treatment Lab, 2015) available at http://static1.1.sqspcdn.com/static/f/1185392/26401889/1437170937787/June+2015+LEAD-Program-Evaluation-Criminal-Justice-and-Legal-System-Utilization-and-Associated-Costs.pdf?token=mmJR1upRcLp1YxBk8mos09uUfKc%3D.
  63. Ibid.