First of Two Parts
By KEVIN NEVERS
How much—the cold-blooded question needs to be asked—does drug abuse cost
The human cost, of course, as paid by addicts and their families in the
dearest currency of all—their blood and souls and lives—is tragic.
But addicts hardly abuse drugs in a vacuum, and the economic cost, which
after all the rest of us must pay, is staggering.
In 2000, drug abuse cost the public and private sectors $50.17 billion in
direct expenditures and $110.49 billion in lost productivity, for a
projected total in that year alone of $160.66 billion, according to a report
released last September by the Office of National Drug Control Policy: The
Economic Costs of Drug Abuse in the United States: 1992-1998.
That sum, in fact, is even greater than it appears at first glance. “Drug
abuse,” as the report defines it, refers solely to the “consequences of
using illicit drugs” and to the costs “pertaining to the enforcement of drug
laws,” not to the costs associated with the “abuse of or dependence on legal
substances that may be termed drugs such as alcohol, tobacco, or
Let’s put that sum—$160.66 billion—in context.
In 2000, the federal government spent only $20.60 billion on elementary,
secondary, and vocational education, as reported by the Statistical Abstract
of the United States: 2001; $7.40 billion on pollution control and
abatement; $6.50 billion on international development and humanitarian
In 1999, Americans spent $7.40 billion on admission to the cinema and $8.20
billion on admission to spectator sports; $96.20 billion on electricity and
$32.70 billion on natural gas; $57.80 billion on dentists and $30.70 billion
on air fare.
In 2000, drinking establishments reported sales of $16.50 billion; shoe
stores, $22.10 billion; fast-food restaurants, $127.50 billion.
By any account, $160.66 billion is a colossal and crippling price to pay for
some other guy’s choice. And it’s rising. Between 1992 and 2000 that cost
jumped 57 percent. And between 1992 and 1998 it rose at an average annual
rate of 5.9 percent: a higher rate, the report says, than the average annual
increase of 2.5 percent in consumer prices during the same period.
The report divides the cost of drug abuse into three categories: health-care
costs, productivity losses, and other costs. Because not all of the data
needed to estimate costs in 1999 and 2000 were available at the time of
writing, the costs quoted for those two years are projections based on
“observable trends for 1992 through 1998.”
In 1992 the total estimated cost of drug-related health care was $10.82
billion. In 2000 it was projected to have been $14.89 billion, an increase
over eight years of 38 percent.
Some of the line items in 2000:
•Drug rehabilitation programs: $6.10 billion.
•Federal, state, and local prevention programs: $911 million.
•Hospital and ambulatory care: $1.30 billion.
•Treating people with HIV or AIDS, contracted directly as a result of
intravenous drug use: $4.14 billion.
•Treating people with hepatitis B or C, contracted directly as a result of
intravenous drug use: $466 million.
•Treating infants exposed to drugs: $539 million.
•Treating the victims of drug-related crime: $128 million.
•Insurance administration: $747 million.
In 1992 drug abuse siphoned an estimated $69.42 billion from the economy in
lost productivity. In 2000 it siphoned a projected $110.49 billion, an
increase over eight years of 59 percent. (Losses in productivity were
calculated by means of the hourly compensation index compiled by the Bureau
of Labor Statistics and lifetime earnings tables.)
The line items in 2000:
•Premature death: $18.25 billion.
•Illness: $25.43 billion.
•The productivity losses incurred by victims of drug-related crime: $2.21
•Institutionalization and hospitalization: $1.91 billion.
•Incarceration: $35.60 billion.
•Crime careers: $27.06 billion.
In 1992 total estimated cost of other drug-related “effects” was $21.91
billion. In 2000 it was projected to have been $35.27 billion, an increase
over eight years of 61 percent.
Some of the line items in 2000:
•Police protection: $10.18 billion.
•Legal adjudication: $5.02 billion.
•State and federal corrections: $11.99 billion.
•Local corrections: $1.59 billion.
•Federal funding to reduce the supply of drugs: $5.47 billion.
•Private legal defense: $591 million.
•Property damage: $181 million.
Revealing though it is, the report is necessarily limited in scope. Some
costs are buried too deep in balance sheets and account books ever to
excavate. Others are intangible. Still others are simply invisible.
The report does not quantify, say, the impact of drug-related health-care
costs on our insurance premiums. It does not estimate the number of sick and
injured whose lives were lost in hospitals or elsewhere because finite
personnel and resources were alotted instead to the treatment of overdoses.
It does not estimate the overtime paid to employees forced to do the work of
colleagues on drug-related sick leave or in rehab. It does not estimate the
wasted manhours and sheer wastage, the lost sales or contracts, attributable
to addicts who reported to work under the influence. It does not estimate
the markup in prices to offset losses in productivity. It does not quantify
the corrosive effect on employee morale of drugs in the workplace. It does
not estimate the number of crimes which police could have prevented had they
been differently occupied. It does estimate the number of children raised in
homes broken by drugs who will abuse drugs themselves.
As the report observes, one could calculate the cost of drug abuse in a
variety of ways. “For example, the costs of pain, suffering, anxiety, and
other intangible impacts of drug abuse are not included in this study,” it
says. “Similarly, this study does not attempt to tabulate the total amount
of money spent by drug users on illegal drugs.”
Consider the latter tabulation. One could speculate on the boon to the
economy were that money pumped into it rather than sucked from it: saved or
invested, expended on goods and services, earmarked for college tuition or
home purchases. One could likewise speculate on the uses to which $160.66
billion could otherwise have been put in 2000. A cure for cancer. A mission
to Mars. Business expansion. Capital projects. Tax cuts. Price breaks. These
are the opportunity costs of drug abuse, and they are high.
Yet the most lasting and profound cost of drug abuse is beyond calculation:
the loss not of productivity but creativity. Addicts drain more than this
nation’s financial resources. They drain something of its prospects. For
when they slip into the underground, they sacrifice a sliver of our futures
as well as their own, the contributions which they might have made to all of
our lives as professionals and entrepreneurs, parents and mentors, citizens.
“Crime careers” may have cost the U.S. $27.06 billion in 2000, as the report
projects, but the intellectual and civic capital which they cost our culture
forever is immeasurable. Careers cut short, careers never undertaken, what
might have been and what will never be: drug abuse not only squanders cash,
it also squanders gifts.
Next: Three Mothers.
From the Economic Costs of Drug Abuse in the United States: 1992-1998,
released by the Office of National Drug Control Policy:
•Estimated number of people in 1998 who had used cocaine or marijuana more
than 100 days in their lifetime: 26.03 million. In 1992: 19.22 million.
•Number of people in 1999 living with AIDS attributable to drug abuse:
109,990. In 1992: 48,668.
•Number of premature deaths in 1998 related to drug abuse: 19,227. In 1992:
24,476. The decrease over the eight years is largely the result of new
protocols in the treatment of HIV and AIDS.
•Percentage of federal inmates in 1997 serving time for violation of drug
laws: 62.6 percent. In 1991: 57.9 percent.
•Percentage of state prison inmates in 1997 serving time for violation of
drug laws: 22.0 percent. In 1991: 23.0 percent.
•Percentage of jail inmates in 1997 serving time for violation of drug laws:
22.0 percent. In 1991: 23.0 percent.
•Percentage of total arrests in 1999 attributable to drug abuse: 15.2
percent. In 1991: 12.9 percent.
•Percentage of homicides attributable to drug abuse: 15.8 percent. Of
burglaries: 30.0 percent. Of larcenies: 29.6 percent. Of robberies: 27.2
Note: The 93-page report is available in PDF format on the Internet at