Questions on The 1315 Project Chart

Addiction rate vs. Drug Prohibition Spending

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.

Comments are closed.

50 Responses

  1. Pingback: [Updated With Correction]: Forty Years of Drug War Failure Represented in a Single Chart - Hit & Run :

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  3. Pingback: Matt Groff’s Viral Drug War Spending Chart | Disinformation

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  6. Konrad says:

    Hi Matt,

    I’m sorry to say this, but this chart is misleading by a factor of ten. Let me quickly explain why.

    Let’s take the two facts you’ve offered as a given:
    (1) In 40 years, the percent of the U.S. population that is addicted has stayed constant.
    (2) In 40 years, gross spending has increased from $1 billion to $20 billion. Twenty-fold?

    Sounds like a lot, right? Well you’re missing two things – which, unfortunately, are critical:
    (1) $1 in 1970 is worth $5.73 today. That’s 4.46% inflation.
    (2) The U.S. annual population growth rate is 1.05% during this forty-year period.

    Just to keep with inflation, a dollar of spending in 1970 would need to increase to $1 x 1.0446 x 1.0105 = $1.05 in 1971. Extrapolated over 1970 to 2010, a dollar of spending in 1970 would cover exactly the same percentage of the population $8.69 in 2010.

    What does this mean? It means that, if your data is correct, spending on drug control has increased 2x, not 20x, since 1970. It’s an increase to be sure. But your chart would benefit greatly from taking these facts into account to better inform your audience.

    Thanks, and have a great weekend!

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  8. Richard says:

    Well, we cannot know how the U.S. addiction rate would have developed without the increased spending to match the increased availability of the also increased amount of drugs in the U.S.

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  11. Ta Yang says:

    1. You showed your reference for the addiction rate data from 2002 to 2010. Where is the data for previous years ?

    2. What is the correlation when you aligned the 10% (left) with the $20billion (right) ?

    3. A graph should only show and conclude with what’s in it. When you say that the $1.5 trillion counts for all the rest, then it shouldn’t be put into this graph. It’s very confusing.

    4. “I’m a filmmaker, not a statistics professor, so I care mostly about faithfully representing the actuality of the situation.” So does a statistic professor…

    5. Where are the data to back the fact that drugs are cheaper/better/more available ?

    6. You might trust Jack Cole, but his conclusions or facts cannot be searched. The only spending data we can check is the one from ONDCP, and it only covers the period from 1992 to 2002. Where is the rest ?

    7. It really doesn’t make any sense to put relative with absolute measurements together to make a point.

    I really do hope that you will update a graphic that, while backing up your rhetoric, will show less amateurism.

    Good luck.

  12. John R. Mayne says:

    Whether the underlying point you are trying to make is right or wrong, your chart is mistaken or fictitious.

    1. I read the link to the addiction rates. The report you cite has 7.1 million people over the age of 12 with drug dependence or abuse (not counting alcohol only.) The United States has about 270 million people who qualify. This doesn’t match your chart numbers.

    2. Since the chart numbers that you have data for appear mistaken, I think it is unsound to believe your assertions on unprovided data.

    3. The chart should have used per capita, inflation-adjusted spending and accurate dependence rates. And, it shouldn’t cherry-pick which costs it wants to cite; if you have other relevant costs, they should be included. By doing it this way, you appear to be cooking the books.

    It’s unshocking but disappointing that many people for drug legalization have simply run the chart without consideration of the obvious flaws. (I salute those for drug legalization who have called out the multiple errors). The numbers you cite appear both deceptively presented, and, more seriously, largely fictitious.

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  16. mhodges says:

    I agree wholly with John R. Mayne, the numbers you cite appear to be misleading and dishonest. If it were a mere footnote it wouldn’t be such a cause for concern, but you’ve elevated these numbers to the lofty heavens of your project title. You really need to reconsider you’re actions. Your backers might back-out once they discover this deception.

  17. Chris K. says:

    “I’m a filmmaker, not a statistics professor, so I care mostly about faithfully representing the actuality of the situation. ”

    I’m a statistics professor, not a filmmaker, so I care mostly about faithfully representing the actuality of the situation.

    I think it is either profession’s goal to present the situation in as truthful of a manner as possible. It’s unfortunate you had a tight production schedule, but that doesn’t excuse you for presenting erroneous information. It does nothing to further your cause when people call into question the validity of your statements.

    This is the age of the Internet, where anything can be taken out of context and often will.

  18. mgroff says:

    @Chris W

    I used After Effects to create the chart for the trailer, exported a series of .jpeg images and used Photoshop Save for Web to create the animated .gif.

  19. mgroff says:

    @Chris K

    Touché, I wrote that ineloquently. I don’t believe the information is erroneous and was really only meant to illustrate my interviewee’s points, but I agree that when it becomes a standalone piece its credibility suffers.

    I’m putting together a new graphic which I think will more credibly depict the same information with a Google spreadsheet where all sources are linked online (which is proving to be a pain in the butt). Would something like # of past month users per 1000 people plotted alongside annual associated costs of drug prohibition per 1000 people be more credible?

  20. mgroff says:


    Thanks for taking the time and breaking it down. While I think all your math is right, I’ve gone back and collected the relevant data. Our annual per capita spending on drug control in 1970, in 2012 dollars, was approximately $2.95 (spending $101.9M 1970 dollars aka $605M 2012 dollars against a population of ~205M). In 2012 it will be more than $84 per capita ($26.2B spent against ~311M citizens).

    I think both charts will look similar, we will find out soon.


  21. mgroff says:

    @Ta Yang

    1. Scattered around the web and offline sources.

    2. I figured anything over 10% would blend the illicit drugs only addiction rate into the baseline.

    3. Agreed that as a standalone image like this that the conclusions drawn could be misleading.

    4. Haha, touché. You got me there, I was writing ineloquently off the cuff and did not intend to demean statisticians.


    6. Scattered around the web, I am putting together a spreadsheet with all the sourced data I can find linked online.

    7. I have heard varying arguments about this, but I’m guessing you are into statistics, so you’re probably right. Would a graph showing addiction (or more likely past month use) per capita vs spending per capita shed more light on the situation? I’ve done mockups and the graphs look pretty similar.

  22. mgroff says:

    @ John R. Mayne

    1. I am guessing you read the data for alcohol + illicit drugs (which is 7.1M) as plotted on the line graph (Figure 7.3 from the link) where I was looking at Figure 7.1. As I mentioned in the post, I am only interested in illicit drug use rates. If I have erred in doing this statistically for some reason, I would like to hear why and what a better method would be.

    2. You are perfectly entitled to come to this conclusion.

    3. I am working on this so I can have a fully vetted, online-sourced version of the graphic. Early mock ups have it looking pretty similar.

  23. Tom Collins says:


    Saw all the flak you were getting. Thought I’d pipe up and give you my support. I recognize this is a work in progress, and I can’t wait to see your final product. I hope people can be open-minded enough to consider the implications, regardless of how uncomfortable it might make them.


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  25. Aaron says:

    Richard comments: “Well, we cannot know how the U.S. addiction rate would have developed without the increased spending to match the increased availability of the also increased amount of drugs in the U.S.”

    You start off on solid ground- we cannot know what the addition rate growth would be under a counterfactual scenario. As for the second part of your statement- you’d need to show that the availability of drugs would have shot up by at least as much as the spending in order for that point to make sense. I doubt the availability of drugs actually did increase that much because that would imply one of (a) the same percentage of people are using them (contradicts supply and demand); (b) the drugs are much less addictive; (c) users have become much more responsible with them, lowering their chances of addiction. In any of these scenarios, it would be a valid question of why we needed to increase spending so much if the drug use itself is so much less risky.

    On the contrary, I suspect of these two explanations are more likely: (1) a surge in federal spending did little to affect the availability of drugs; or (2) even when drug availability is reduced, addiction rates remain relatively stable, meaning the drugs still available to those prone to addiction, even if less available to the general public. In both of those cases, it is also legitimate to question what value all of that spending got us.

    Ta Young asks: “2. What is the correlation when you aligned the 10% (left) with the $20billion (right) ?”

    I think the point of the overlay is that there is little to no correlation. As federal spending has gone up considerably, our addiction rates remain the same, meaning that at best we’re getting no value out of all of that increased spending. The two vertical scales don’t have to be correlated with themselves, because it’s a graphical overlay, and it’s clear which scale goes with which graph. (If one of the scales were logarithmic and the other linear, that could be a problem.) Also, correlation doesn’t care about scale, it only cares about direction.

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  29. neludie says:

    Well, I’ll be the first to say THANK YOU!.. I don’t care if it is an accurate statistic from a megacalculation from quantum protones or something. But I care a lot about showing (with a simple image) that there is no further relation between Control Spending and Addiction levels. So, the goverment must stop punishing and start teaching about drugs, personal freedom and medical cannabis.

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  34. scott says:

    Statistics are easily tweeked to draw almost any preferred conclusion. However, regardless of the level of accuracy, I am confident of the baseline truth about money spent to inhibit or prevent drug abuse and addiction being a colossal waste of time. I am in the trenches every day as a drug addict and counselor of 10 years helping people out of it. Addiction is not a criminal issue it is a social and health issue. Evolved societies understand that. Politicized ones use the issue for elections and earn money on everything from DEA jobs to a privatized prison industry. Colorado & Washington are moving us in the right direction. We’ll get there. Thanks for your work, at the very least you’ve brought some attention to the matter in a fascinating manner sparking intelligent discourse. Thank you.

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  40. Cpx says:

    Mindblowing!!! That author thinks people are retarded idiots who can’t factor in population and inflation. Misleading plot is misleading.

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