The Cost of the War on Drugs

In yesterday’s article I looked at Operation Hemisphere.  This is a project that embeds AT&T telephone contractors with DEA agents.  DEA serves subpoenas on the contractors, who in turn provide the government with a variety of subscriber and usage data.  I argued that the program is troubling for civil liberties on two levels.  One, the contractors are dangerously close to becoming “agents of the state”.  Two, administrative subpoenas are not subject to prior judicial oversight.  Often times, government officials sign the subpoenas, which are then served on the contractors.

In an effort to keep us safe the United States government is spending billions of dollars annually.  Many have considered the “war on drugs” to be a colossal failure.  The United States government is spending its way blind to stop drugs and drug use is not diminishing.  It is extremely difficult to estimate how much the drug war has cost.  One report puts the cost at nearly 2.5 trillion dollars since its inception.  One thing is clear.  The federal government is spending money hand over fist to combat drugs and the results are not improving.

In a 2011 New York Times opinion piece, former President Jimmy Carter called for the end of the global drug war.  Carter cited a Global Commission of Drug Policy report, which found that from the years 1998-2008, global consumption of opium increased 34.5%, cocaine 27%, and cannabis 8.5%.  This says nothing about the proliferation of methamphetamine and various prescription pain medicines.

Recently, Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would alter the way it is doing business as it relates to low-level, non-gang-related drug offenders.  No longer will the Justice Department seek the mandatory minimum sentences for offenders falling into the above classifications.

Let’s take a look at where some of the money is going.

Bureau of Prisons

The cost of the federal prison population is likely a partial catalyst for Holder’s recent announcement.  It is reported that there are over 200,000 sentenced inmates currently in the federal system.  Of those, 176,000 are housed in Bureau of Prison facilities.  This does not include the millions incarcerated across the country in state and local prisons.  Nearly half of the federal inmates (46%) are serving sentences for drug-related crimes.  It is estimated that it costs $21,000 a year to house minimum-security prisoners, and for high-security facilities the price tag jumps to $33,000 per year.

The government cannot keep pouring money into an effort in which the cost of “winning” is unsustainable financially.  The cost of “winning” forced the Obama administration to request $6.9 billion for fiscal year 2013 to fund the Bureau of Prisons.

The DEA and FBI Budgets

To handle analysis, surveillance, operations, and various designated missions, the DEA budget request for fiscal year 2013 was $2,403,467,000.  The 2013 FBI budget request was a whopping $8.2 billion.  While the FBI handles a variety of crimes and investigations including, counterterrorism and cyber threats, the FBI safe streets task forces do investigate drug-related crimes.

There is a tremendous amount of overlap in the federal system.  The DEA and FBI both investigate drug crimes.  The CIA, DEA, and FBI all investigate counter terror threats.  Budgets are burgeoning and the taxpayer is on the hook for every last dime.

The Bottom Line

The numbers contained herein are only a fraction of what is being spent annually by just a few agencies in the federal government.  The Justice Department spends a tremendous amount of money prosecuting these crimes.  With a national debt that is climbing out of control, Washington may want to think hard about sinking billions of dollars annually into a war that it simply cannot win.

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