BLOG: As the rough chart from my trailer has gone somewhat viral, I’ve started to get some questions on what it represents and I wanted to offer up some clarity on how it came about. The three questions that have arisen most often are the following: where does the 1.3% addiction rate statistic come from? How does this chart add up to $1.5 trillion? Does it make sense to use a relative measurement (addiction rate) with an absolute measurement (spending)?
[UPDATE 10/24: I've created a new chart to address many of the questions here]
Where does the 1.3% addiction rate statistic come from?
One of the challenges of evaluating America’s system of drug prohibition is tracking down and assembling the raw data that comes from various entities. Since I am are most interested in what has been done in the name of combatting illicit drugs, alcohol being perfectly legal and regulated, I’ve focused on the dependency rates solely for illicit drugs, ignoring dependency rates for both alcohol alone and alcohol + illicit drugs (as it stands to reason those dependencies would default to only alcohol in the absence of illicit drugs). What we find is a relatively constant 1.3% of Americans dependent on illicit drugs. Here you can see the data for 2002-2010 which shows approximately 1.3% of the population addicted to illicit drugs . Earlier data is difficult to find and link to online, though the National Survey on Drug Use and Health is the primary data source for this information.
How does the chart add up to $1.5 trillion?
A few astute viewers have noted that at its peak spending, the chart I’ve included only hits approximately $20 billion, which extrapolated over 40 years would yield only $800 billion. Yet we can clearly see that the chart itself is not flat at the $20B level, but climbs sharply beginning in the mid 1980s. So in short, the chart, as shown, does not add up to $1.5 trillion.
So why did I do this? This graphic was initially not meant to stand on its own but rather illustrate an interviewee’s assertions about the costs and efficacy of drug prohibition. In a tight production schedule, I utilized a data set that I thought most accurately illustrated the nature and growth of the costs of the War on Drugs and that data is US federal drug control spending. But the $1.5 trillion figure, as mentioned by Jack Cole in his interview, accounts for many more costs, including state level costs, prison costs, lost productivity costs due to incarceration and others. I trust Jack’s estimate of $1.5 trillion after a quick review of the ONDCP report from 2004 gave me confidence that he was right on the money. You can check out the ONDCP’s The Economic Costs of Drug Abuse in the United States, 1992-2002 here.
Does it make sense to use a relative measurement (addiction rate) with an absolute measurement (spending)?
I’m a filmmaker, not a statistics professor, so I care mostly about faithfully representing the actuality of the situation. Drug use and abuse exists on a spectrum and as a society we must accept that some portion of the population will be addicted to drugs even if we don’t like it. Can we be sure that this chart demonstrates, as I assert, that the effect of prohibition has been minimal? Or does this chart more likely show that we have needed to spend more and more just to keep the addiction rate the same?
I argue the former. Drugs are more available now, and the drugs that are available are cheaper and better. On a relative basis, more people have tried illicit drugs now as opposed to the past and yet the addiction rate has not moved significantly in either direction. Ultimately, that the likelihood that one would encounter and possibly try drugs has increased while the addiction rate has remained relatively flat points to the fact that drug use and abuse are unaffected by how many costs we must endure in enacting drug prohibition.
I’m really excited about the response this chart has gotten and I’m going to make a more comprehensive one that clearly shows the different factors of the costs. Stay tuned for that.
And check out my Kickstarter campaign for The 1315 Project.