Have we seen a reduction in the use of illicit drugs as a result of spending on law enforcement?

July 31, 2017 The Noffs Team Comments

- Updated 19 February 2019

Law enforcement has played a central role in global drug policy for the past 50 years. Governments of developed and developing nations alike have devoted large sections of their budgets to policing drug use and supply, resulting in an increased use of punitive sanctions and a rapid rise in rates of incarceration [1]. The UK-based NGO Transform Drug Policy Foundation estimates the global law enforcement costs for illicit drugs at over US$100 billion annually [2]. Is all this money having an impact on the people and issues that should be central to drug policy debates - those using drugs, and the potential consequences: drug-related harms and crime? Whilst black-market drug production, trade and use, like most illicit activities, are difficult to measure accurately, available long-term data indicates that worldwide drug law enforcement expenditure has done little to counter the negative consequences of drug use and trade [3]. The overall aim of the war on drugs has been to ultimately eliminate the use and availability of illicit drugs, but the opposite is occurring and, in the face of the billions spent annually to counter drug markets, these markets have expanded and drug use has risen [4]. In other words, this has not been money well spent.

This article will examine the total expenditure on drug law enforcement undertaken by a sample of western democratic nations - specifically the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom - in comparison to rates of drug use, related crime, and related harms.


The United States has spent $1 trillion on the war on drugs since 1971, and federal spending on drug control in the US is currently estimated at $15 billion annually [5]. Of this figure, roughly 50% is spent on domestic law enforcement. The federal government has prioritised spending and grants for drug task forces and widespread drug interdiction efforts that often target low-level drug dealing [6]. Despite this, a World Health Organisation survey showed the US remains the number one nation in the world in illegal drug use [7], ranking higher than countries with less restrictive drug laws, and that drug use has remained stable or even increased for most drugs [8]. In 2013, approximately 24.6 million Americans, or 9.4% of the population, had used an illicit drug in the previous month - an increase from 8.3% in 2002 [9].


It is difficult to determine the exact amount Australian governments spend on drug law enforcement, given that it is often absorbed into the wider category of crime expenditure [10]. However, the approximate amount is determined at $1.7 billion annually on illicit drug policy, with over 60% ($1.1 million) allocated to law enforcement [11]. Despite the economic efforts of governments, annual use of illicit drugs has remained unchanged between 2004 and 2013, at about 15% [12]. This is despite rising arrests rates for illicit drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy. In the period 2011-12, there were 93,148 arrests for prohibited drugs, the highest reported for that past decade [13]. 61,011 (65%) of these arrests were for cannabis. According to the most recent National Drug Strategy Household Survey however, cannabis remains the most frequently used illicit drug in Australia. This would appear to indicate that cannabis users are not deterred by high arrest rates. Between 2006 and 2015, arrest rates for ecstasy use in NSW increased from 710 to 3,039 [14], while Australia continues to rank among the highest in terms of ecstasy users per country [15].

An increase in regular and dependent crystal methamphetamine use in Australia has also been recorded by several studies [16,17].


Total law enforcement expenditure costs UK governments 16 billion pounds annually [18,19].

Despite this, there is no indication it is helping to reduce illicit drug use. In 2014, the number of adults using illicit drugs in England and Wales increased by approximately 230,000 to 2.7 million [20]. Lifetime illicit drug use is increasing, with the proportion of Britons who had ever taken an illegal drug increasing from 27% in 2008 to 31% in 2015 [21]. There are still about 2,000 drug-related deaths in the UK annually [22]. Recent figures for past year drug use, while lower than a decade ago, has been stable since 2009 [23].

Collateral damage

Illicit drug misuse can cause huge social and economic problems. Drug-related crime, violence, healthcare costs, unemployment and family deterioration are just some of the issues affecting communities. However, attempts to alleviate those problems by way of punitive drug law enforcement can often exacerbate them instead.

Economic toll

The collateral damage of illicit drug misuse and dependency are the related health and social consequences, including hospitalisation, crime and social dysfunction. This comes at significant cost to communities. Drug-related incidents are estimated to cost $11 billion annually in the US [24]. This includes two million emergency room visits recorded in 2009. Illicit drugs cost Australian taxpayers approximately $8.2 billion annually [25], and 15 billion pounds a year in the UK [26].

Social problems

Illicit drug misuse and dependency cause a number of social problems in communities, including family deterioration. In the UK, opiate and crack cocaine use rates have remained near constant since 2004, and there are 335,000 children living with a parent dependent on opiates and/or crack cocaine [27]. Over 27,000 children in Australia live with an adult using methamphetamine at least monthly [28]. 2.7 million children in the US have at least one parent incarcerated, and substantial portion of those are for drug law violations [29]. Evidence suggests these children are likely to have poorer health and educational outcomes, and experience family-related violence [30].

Crime is another social problem closely linked to illicit drug misuse. As previously mentioned, dependent methamphetamine use is increasing in Australia. The close link between dependent crystal methamphetamine use, violent crime and property crime could see a logical increase in these types of crime as dependent use increases [31]. Past estimates show drug-related crime accounts for about 88% of the economic and social costs to the UK government and taxpayers [32]. The year 2014 saw more than 1.5 million drug arrests in the US, with 80% for possession only [33]. The number of people imprisoned for drug offences has risen dramatically in the last 40 years, from approximately 38,000 to more than 500,000 [34]. One US study found significant percentages (30-49%) of surveyed inmates who had committed robbery or prostitution offences reported doing so to obtain money for drugs [35]. Drug-related crime rates and law enforcement attempts to quell them can disproportionately affect minority communities. People of colour in the US are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested and convicted of a drug-related offence [36]. African-Americans comprise 13% of the US population, but 31% of those arrested for drug offences and 40% of those incarcerated for them. Similarly, 17% of the US population is Hispanic, but they are similarly overrepresented in the criminal justice system, comprising 47% of all federal court cases for drug offences, and 37% of drug offenders in the federal corrections system [37]. A criminal record in the United States denies an individual many rights and freedoms, including the right to vote, child custody, employment, and public housing [38]. This creates further social problems through the entrenchment of certain groups as “second class citizens”.

Drug-related fatalities

Evidence shows law enforcement is having little impact on the number of drug related fatalities. In the US, national figures portray a steady increase in all drug related deaths between 2002 and 2015 [39], but the rate of drug-related deaths involving heroin nearly quadrupled, from 0.7 per 100,000 in 2000 to 2.7 per 10,000 in 2013 [40]. The increase has been particularly rapid since 2010. Accidental deaths involving crystal methamphetamine (“ice”) have increased significantly in Australia, from 88 deaths in 2010 to 170 in 2013 [41]. This coincides with a sharp rise in ice use amongst people who inject drugs, up by 52% in the past 10 years. In 2015, six people died of suspected drug overdoses at Australian music festivals, and numerous more were hospitalised [42]. This is despite a visible police presence at such events and a number of measures in place aimed at detecting and removing drugs from individuals, such as sniffer dogs, which cost the NSW government $9 million per year alone [43]. Over the year 2015-16, drug-related deaths in the UK rose 10% to 2,479, the highest ever recorded [44]. Fatalities involving heroin, cocaine and amphetamines have increased since 2010 [45].

Money well spent?

Statistics for the three nations analysed portray illicit drug use as either unchanged or increasing, despite the large budgets allocated to drug law enforcement. It highlights a fundamental flaw in current policy strategies aimed at eradicating or significantly reducing illicit drug use, and demonstrates that the amount of money spent on developing strategies to tackle social problems is no indication of success if the policy merely addresses the symptoms of the problem, rather than the root cause. In this case, funding punitive law enforcement targeting drug use and related social harms, rather than redirecting that funding towards addressing the underlying causal factors for drug use and dependency in the first place, simply buries the problem under increasing amounts of government expenditure but never truly improves it.


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[8] UNODC. 2012. World Drug Report 2012 - Chapter 1: Recent Statistics and Trend Analysis of Illicit Drug Markets. (Retrieved from here)

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[10] Nicholas, R. Roche, A. 'FactCheck: Does Australia spend $1.5 billion a year on drug law enforcement, with 70% due to cannabis?' The Conversation. 29 Feburary 2016. (Retrieved from here

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[18] 'The cost of drug laws: 16 billion'. politics.co.uk. 7 April 2009. (Retrieved from here)

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[21] Mann, J. 'British drugs survey 2014: drug use is rising in the UK - but we're not addicted'. The Guardian. 5 October 2014. (Retrieved from here

[22] Runciman, R. 'Britain's drug policies could be wasting billions'. The Guardian. 15 October 2012. (Retrieved from here

[23] Lader, D. 2016. 'Drug Misuse: Findings from the 2015/16 Crme Survey for England and Wales. Home Office. (Retrieved from here

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[26,27] The Centre for Social Justice. 2013. 'No Quick Fix: Exposing the depth of Britain's drug and alcohol problem'. (Retrieved from here

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[29] Drug Policy Alliance. 2018. 'The Drug War, Mass Incarceration and Race'. (Retrieved from here)

[30] The Centre for Social Justice. 2013. 'No Quick Fix: Exposing the depth of Britain's drug and alcohol problem'. (Retrieved from here

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[32] Bryan, M. et al. 2013. 'Drug-related crime'. Institute for Social & Economic Research. (Retrieved from here

[33] Drug Policy Alliance. 2018. 'The Drug War, Mass Incarceration and Race'. (Retrieved from here)

[34] Count The Costs. The War on Drugs: Wasting billions and undermining economies. (Retrieved from here)

[35] Culkins, J.P. Kleiman, M.A.R. 2014. 'How Much Crime is Drug-Related? History, Limitations, and Potential Improvements of Estimation Methods'. National Criminal Justice Reference Service. (Retrieved from here)

[36,37,38] Drug Policy Alliance. 2018. 'The Drug War, Mass Incarceration and Race'. (Retrieved from here)

[39] National Institute on Drug Abuse. 2019. 'Overdose Death Rates'. (Retrieved from here

[40] Hedegaard, H. et al. 2015. 'Drug-poisoning Deaths Involving Heroin: United States, 2000-2013'. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Retrieved from here

[41] Downey, M. 2015. 'Methamphetamine deaths increase across Australia and ice use jumps by 52 per cent among people who inject drugs'. NDARC. (Retrieved from here

[42] 'Six Dead, Countless Overdoses: Why Has Australia's Music Festival Culture Turned Deadly?' Tone Deaf. 7 December 2015. (Retrieved from here

[43] 'We now know sniffer dogs cost NSW more than $9m per year'. ABC Hack. 25 May 2016. (Retrieved from here

[44] Gayle, D. 'Drug-related deaths hit record levels in England and Wales'. The Guardian. 9 September 2016. (Retrieved from here

[45] Public Health England. 2016. 'Trends in drug misuse deaths in England'. Gov.UK. (Retrieved from here





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