Chesterton Tribune

Cost of drug abuse: We all pick up the tab

Back to Front Page




First of Two Parts



How much—the cold-blooded question needs to be asked—does drug abuse cost Americans?

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 prescription medications.”

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 assistance.

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.”

Health-Care Costs

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.

Productivity Losses

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 billion.

•Institutionalization and hospitalization: $1.91 billion.

•Incarceration: $35.60 billion.

•Crime careers: $27.06 billion.

Other Costs

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.

Opportunity Costs

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 percent.

Note: The 93-page report is available in PDF format on the Internet at


Posted 6/26/2002