We compiled some surprising statistics about America’s longstanding War on Drugs — facts that may change your opinion on the continuing debate over legalization.


Over the last thirty years, our prison population has increased from 300,000 to well over 2 million, with nearly 6 million under correctional control. Much of this has been driven by harsher sentencing for drug crimes. In 2011 alone, 1.53 million people were arrested on non-violent drug charges. Adam Gopnik’s famous New Yorker piece, The Caging of America, pinpoints the crux of this tragedy – increased incarceration is not making our streets any safer. He writes:

One fact stands out. While the rest of the country, over the same twenty-year period, saw the growth in incarceration that led to our current astonishing numbers, New York, despite the Rockefeller drug laws, saw a marked decrease in its number of inmates. “New York City, in the midst of a dramatic reduction in crime, is locking up a much smaller number of people, and particularly of young people, than it was at the height of the crime wave,” Zimring observes. Whatever happened to make street crime fall, it had nothing to do with putting more men in prison.


Illegal drugs are responsible for fewer deaths per year than alcohol, tobacco, or firearms. Despite a staggering cost of enforcement and over a million arrests per year, illegal drugs result in a death toll of 20,000 annually. In comparison, 440,000 die from disease stemming from tobacco use and 85,000 die from alcohol use. 32,000 were victims of gun violence. This telling chart provides an additional breakdown of all drug deaths (not just illegal drugs) and shows that the largest (and fastest growing category) of overdose deaths is from pharmaceuticals.


The cost of enforcement for the War on Drugs tops $41 billion dollars per year. If taxed at a similar rate as tobacco and alcohol, legalizing drugs would yield revenues of over $46 billion annually.


Police can seize and keep property without any criminal proof against the owners. In what is known as civil forfeiture, police departments can bring civil charges not against individuals, but against property. Because property does not have the rights assigned to human beings, it does not have the right to an attorney. Though laws vary from state to state, civil forfeiture basically allows law enforcement to confiscate and retain property without proving any wrongdoing on the part of the individual whose property was confiscated, often on the basis of having been used in the drug trade. Poor (and often minority) targets are at a particular disadvantage: without the means to retain counsel or seek legal guidance, they give up property rights because they can’t afford the fees to contest the seizure, or simply because they cannot file the appropriate paperwork in the narrow window given.


Police forces focus on drugs because they get to keep the proceeds. It turns out asset forfeiture (as described above) is a primary fundraising mechanism for police forces short on dollars. As this NPR piece describes:

“…to be able to turn around and use those same assets to benefit our department, that’s a win-win situation as far as we’re concerned,” says Kingsville Police Chief Ricardo Torres.

In this sleepy city of 25,000 people, with its enviable low crime rate, police officers drive high-performance Dodge Chargers and use $40,000 digital ticket writers. They’ll soon carry military-style assault rifles, and the SWAT team recently acquired sniper rifles.


America incarcerates more of its minority population than any other nation in the world. This includes South Africa at the height of apartheid. Nationwide, 1 in 3 African American men serve time in prison at some point in their lives. In Washington, D.C., home to some of the country’s poorest and racially segregated neighborhoods, this number grows to a staggering 75%. Some have argued this a natural result of increased drug use rates in poorer neighborhoods – however data shows that drug use rates are fairly consistent across ethnic lines, with the exception of a slightly higher usage rate among Caucasian teens and young adults. (This piece using a different data set even shows that Caucasian drug use significantly exceeds that of African Americans and Hispanics.)

About The Author

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Anna Redmond is the author of The Golden Arrow, a fantasy political thriller which draws on historical traditions of holy sex to create a society where women use sex for magic and power. She is also curator and co-founder of Hippo Reads.