Sequester the Drug War: Drug Control Spending and the Opportunity to Stop Throwing Good Money After Bad

With the squeeze of the sequester increasingly palpable across the country and the battle over next year's budget unfolding on Capitol Hill, there is no better time for a sober, bipartisan and data-driven conversation about our spending priorities. One area where dismal return on investment dictates fundamental change is the "war on drugs." By slashing anti-drug programs we know are not working, we can save hundreds of billions, while also reducing the collateral human costs of these programs at home and abroad.

Based loosely on market theory, U.S. drug policy has two pillars: supply reduction and demand reduction. The thinking goes that we can reduce drug abuse by attacking supply chains, thus making it harder and more expensive to procure illegal drugs, while also reducing demand by educating Americans about the risks and treating addiction. Supply reduction has always received the lion's share of resources.

In the 1980s, as part of our burgeoning effort to curtail the inflow of drugs, the U.S. began aggressively attacking coca and opium traffickers in the Andes. Based on the Government Accountability Office's assessment, the investment of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars and significant human resources helped incapacitate several drug kingpins. But, as supply chains organically shifted, our efforts failed to sustainably reduce the flow or increase street prices of Andean cocaine or heroin.

In short order, the U.S. was forced to invest nearly $2 billion in new assistance to Mexico to fight drug transport and drug-related crime spilling over from Columbia, Bolivia and Guatemala. The same pattern of "whack-a-mole" has repeated across the world, including Asia, Africa and especially Afghanistan, where we have unsuccessfully tried to incentivize farmers to cultivate grains instead of opium poppies. The current yearly federal outlay for international and interdiction programs is approximately $6 billion, but we have very little to show for these investments; the only sure beneficiaries are private government contractors.

Ineffective in increasing the price or curtailing the supply of drugs, these efforts have instead caused major collateral damage. Internationally, our drug enforcement and attendant diplomacy have been linked to fueling corruption, human rights abuses, environmental damage from crop eradication and the AIDS epidemic among people who inject drugs. The decades-long struggle has also resulted in tragic loss of thousands of lives; just in Mexico, the death toll is now estimated at 70,000.

The supply reduction mindset has also made the U.S. the undisputed leader in mass incarceration: annual state and federal prison expenditures total over $60 billion, with at least 40 percent of the inmates incarcerated on drug-related offences. Reduced employment and educational prospects, continued criminal involvement, recidivism, and substance abuse are well-documented outcomes of incarceration, with disproportionate impact on minority groups.

Over time, criticism of these approaches has come from across the political spectrum. Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Freedman famously applied liberal market theory to argue that efforts to stem the drug supply are doomed to failure as long as there is robust demand for the product. The history of failed U.S. investment in efforts to curb drug production and trafficking or to even increase black market prices precisely illustrates this theory.

Today, statistics demonstrate that legitimate medications kill many more Americans than heroin and cocaine, combined. This clearly points to prescription drug misuse as the top public health priority. Additionally, almost half of U.S. states have now adopted laws permitting medical or recreational use of marijuana, with many others reducing criminal sanctions for drug crimes. Just last week, we learned that the majority of Americans now support total marijuana legalization. Meanwhile, internationally, the realization that current approaches do more harm than good are generating fresh debate and reform across Latin America and Europe.

The recently-unveiled 2014 Budget proposes to invest 58 percent of the total drug control spending in unproven supply-side efforts. This is out of step with today's public health evidence and public opinion. We can no longer afford to sink billions into these failed programs. With many grave challenges facing our country, only fresh thinking and smart investments can position us to remain competitive in the new global order.