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A little over a century ago, drugs were just like any commodity, free and accessible. It all changed when the church found a new “source of immorality and deviation” and with it a new target, synonym for evil and depravity.

In 1904, a bishop returned from the East advocating banning opium because of moral degeneration among users.

Ten years later, The New York Times started writing about blacks “committing violent crimes” and deriving superpowers from cocaine that made them resist law enforcement and even become impervious to bullets.

The war on drugs statistics we curated at The High Court will take us through the decades and numbers. We’ll also have a closer look at some of the most interesting war on drugs facts.

Let’s dive right in.

Fascinating War on Drugs Facts (Editor’s Picks)

  • Over 500,000 people are incarcerated in the US on drug charges, which is more than all of Western Europe’s prisoners, on all criminal charges, combined.
  • The US spent $1 trillion fighting the war on drugs.
  • The global drug industry accounts for 1% of all worldwide commerce.
  • 80% of all globally produced opioids are consumed by Americans.
  • More than 80% of all drug-related arrests in the US are for possession, not for sale.
  • Over 663,367 people were arrested for marijuana offenses in 2018
  • People of color are 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for possession than whites, even though they use  the same amount of drugs.
  • 67% of people say the focus should be on treatment, not prosecution.

War on Drugs History

The true war on drugs we know today started with the campaign of the Richard Nixon administration. The president raised the federal funding for military and police efforts and started the doomsday narrative of America’s impending ruin brought on by drug use. 


John Ehrlichman, President Nixon’s aide, the genuine reasons had to do with associating the anti-war movement with marijuana and the black community with heroin. So, the goal was to disrupt both under the cover of the US war on drugs label, by landing them in what now became a heavily criminalized activity. 

That way, access to members of those communities was free, their leaders could be detained and arrested, meetings and homes could be disrupted and searched without question. Further, the people themselves could be used daily in the media as villains.

It gets worse:

“Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did,” Ehrlichman was quoted as saying years later. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or the black.”

Now, back to the stats:

1. In 1986, five grams of crack carried a five-year sentence, while one needed 500 grams of cocaine to get the same time.

(Source: History) 

This becomes an “aha moment” once you learn the poor black community used crack. In contrast, powdered cocaine was the rich white community’s drug of choice. With that in mind, racial targeting becomes one of the indisputable facts about the war on drugs.

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 introduced the mandatory minimum prison sentences for specific drug charges. These changes in federal drug laws meant all drugs were no longer equal.

Here’s the deal:

You could get the same sentence for 5 grams of crack cocaine as for 500 grams of powder cocaine, an automatic five years. This triggered the filing of US prisons and contributed to the rising mass incarceration trend

The difference was reduced in 2010 when Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, and the discrepancy between crack and powder cocaine offenses went down from 100:1 to 18:1.

2. You could get a small syringe of cocaine at Sears and Roebuck in the 1890s.

(Source: History)

We can see a small dose of cocaine along with a syringe in the Sears and Roebuck catalog in the 1890s, and its price is listed at $1.50. This is what drug use looked like before the enactment of any war on drugs policies.

3. Despite the 50 year-long war on drugs, the global cocaine supply has grown by 400%.

(Source: William J Perry Center)

The global war on drugs statistics show that despite the massive funding that the war on drugs has received over the decades, cocaine production has skyrocketed. We can say the same about demand.

4. Americans spent $150 billion on drugs in 2016.

(Source: The Hill)

War on drugs statistics show Americans are spending a lot of money on drugs. And the fact that they’re illegal is not likely to stop them. A 2016 report from the RAND corporation reveals the spending for that year reached a whopping $150 billion, looking at cannabis, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines combined.

war on drugs statistics

Cost of the War on Drugs

5. The United States has spent a total of $1 trillion on the war on drugs so far.  

(Source: American Progress, Vox)

The amount of money spent on war on drugs in the US since the early 1970s is estimated to be an eye-watering $1 trillion.

Daily US war on drugs spending just for the incarceration of prisoners for drug-related crimes was $9.2 million in 2015, amounting to over $3.3 billion per year. The war on drugs cost North Carolina alone over $70 million for incarcerating people for possession, while Georgia spent a total of $78.6 million.

6. The war on drugs budget has increased 31 times since the 1970s.

(Source: Fox)

The first war on drugs budget was $100 million, and it has now reached the astonishing sum of $15.1 billion, which is 31 times more than when Nixon started the initiative. Meanwhile, the positive results are missing. 

Here are some sums spent during the past decades:

  • $121 billion on 37 million arrests of nonviolent drug offenders, out of which 10 million for possession of marijuana
  • $450 billion for the costs of federal prison incarceration
  • $215 billion in indirectly related costs of consequences of drug abuse in the health and justice systems, productivity, and environment
  • $33 billion on marketing campaigns that aim to lower the user rates, which are higher than ever and have been rising steadily since the 1970s
  • $20 billion for fighting the war on drugs abroad, in countries like Afghanistan, Colombia, and Mexico, all of which were and are still seeing growth in their booming drug markets

7. Legalizing marijuana would save $7.7 billion a year in avoided enforcement costs in the US.

(Source: American Progress, Drug Policy)

According to the war on drugs cost statistics, the legalization of marijuana would save around $7.7 billion per year and add another $6 billion in tax revenue. The net total is estimated at an astounding $13.7 billion, a sum which if diverted into education could school 650,000 public university students per year.

What’s more:

Legalization of all drugs would bring a whopping $106.7 billion in budget savings and gains. Broken down, it looks like this – $19 billion in state and local tax revenue, $39 billion in federal tax revenue, and $47 billion in savings when it comes to enforcement.

8. The world drug trade is estimated to be worth $320 billion.

(Source: The Guardian)

A 2011 Global Financial Integrity report states that drug-related activities bring nearly half of the total of $650 billion that all illegal activities in the world bring combined The other two notable categories are counterfeiting, with around $250 billion, and human trafficking, which is estimated at around $31.6 billion in 2009 research.

9. The global drug industry accounts for 1% of all worldwide commerce.

(Source: Fox)

How to end the war on drugs? 

The answer seems to be by decriminalization and legalization.

Drug trade is the foundation of an incredible 10% of Mexico’s economy. 25 cents per $100 smuggled is seized at the border. With $25 billion coming in from the US every year, there is no reason for it to stop. 

This is why global decriminalization is so important. Even if it seems far-fetched at the moment, the illegal drug market has to crash as the legal market establishes itself. No matter how many dealers and traffickers a country imprisons, others will pop up in their place, especially in countries like Mexico.

10. Up to  $49 billion was spent on law enforcement on the US borders to stop the flow of illegal drugs. 

(Source: Fox)

Even though a massive $49 billion was invested over the last four decades in border control, drug use has not dropped. In fact, 25 million Americans10 million more than before the war on drugs started – will use drugs over the course of one year according to the war on drugs statistics. 

11. Heroin is 93% cheaper than in the 1980s, while cannabis prices remain the same.

(Source: Vox)

Most drugs cost less than they used to. The median bulk price of cocaine dropped by 87% and of heroin by a mind-boggling 93% between 1981 and 2007.

What’s more:

Crack cocaine is 54% cheaper now than in the 1980s. In contrast, the prices of meth and marijuana have been roughly the same for decades.

12. The United States spent $7.6 billion on the war on drugs in Afghanistan, only for its heroin production to grow during that time.

(Source: Vox)

We can see the greatest failures in Afghanistan, where the failed war on drugs statistics show the US spent $7.6 billion between 2002 and 2014 trying to destroy the opium trade, only for it to have its peak and best crop and sales year in 2013. Ironic, isn’t it?

13. The price of heroin has dropped by 81% since the 1990s, while its purity increased by 60%.

(Source: The Guardian)

War on drugs facts and figures found in the British Medical Journal in 2013 reveal that even with prices dropping, the purity of substances is increasing in Europe and the US. And though it might be hard to find precise ways to measure the war on drugs success,  this might be one of the many indications it’s failing.

While the price of heroin fell by 81%, cocaine by 80%, and cannabis by 86%, the average purity has increased by 60% for heroin, 11% for cocaine, and up to 161% for cannabis since the 1990s.

Drug Use Statistics

14. At least 5.6% of the entire world population used illegal drugs in 2016.

(Source: Statista)

Keep in mind that every country is different, and the rates go up and down depending on the availability of the substances, harshness of drug laws, and the enforcement of penalties. However, the overall average for global population drug use is relatively low, at 5.6% according to drugs statistics.


While the abuse of legal and illegal substances presents a problem all over the world, countries are taking their anti-drug efforts to different levels. Some are calling it a war and turning it into a billion-dollar industry branch of its own, and some focusing on legalization, regulation, and rehabilitation.

15. Harder drugs are showing an increase in use, with 14.9 million Americans reporting using methamphetamine currently or at one time.

(Source: Statista)

The numbers vary from drug to drug, but the use of heavier drugs is on the rise, despite the war on drugs. Heroin consumption steadily rose every year from 2007 to 2016, but has stagnated or decreased since then. Altogether, almost 15 million Americans have reported using methamphetamine at some point in their lives. 

16. Around 124 million people in the US report using marijuana at some point. 

(Source: Statista, Statista)

Marijuana usage stats show some 124 million Americans have used this drug at one point in their lives or are currently using it for recreational or medicinal purposes. While federal law still regards it as illegal, many states have legalized it and created a brand new and growing industry that will be worth $23 billion by 2025.

This is huge:

[bctt tweet=”Support for legalization is growing, and over 66% of people in the US believe marijuana should be legal.” via=”no”]

17. After marijuana and cocaine, ecstasy and LSD are the most used, with around 2.5 million users in 2019.

(Source: Statista)

Looking at the number of people that reported using a certain drug during 2019, some 48.2 million said they used marijuana, 5.4 million reported using cocaine, 2.5 million ecstasy, 2.4 million LSD, 1.9 million methamphetamines. Finally, 77,000 and 75,000 said they had been using crack and heroin in 2019.

18. 28.1% of teenagers claimed cocaine is fairly easy to get in 2018.

(Source: Statista)

While the lifetime prevalence for children in grades 8, 10, and 12 is 33.9% for drug use and is somewhat stable in the last period, it’s noticeably lower than the 43.3% in 1997.  

One positive fact on the war on drugs today is that finding drugs seems to be slightly harder than it was last decade, with 28.1% of children in the 12th grade claiming that finding cocaine in 2018 was “fairly easy” or “very easy.” This number stood at 46.5% in 2006.

Then again, the 1990s and 2000s were a time when “Simply Everyone’s Taking Cocaine,” as British poet Murray Lachlan Young observed wryly:

19. The lowest drug use among high-schoolers was reported in 1992 (14.4%).  

(Source: Vox)

One of the interesting drug facts is that use among teenagers has very visible ups and downs over the long period that the United States war on drugs covers. A survey called Monitoring the Future shows that in 1975, at the start of the war on drugs, 30.7% of highschool students reported using drugs the month before. This rate dropped 14.4% in 1992 before going up to 25.5% in 2013.

19. Death by overdose average was 17 per 100,000 population in the US in 2018.

(Source: Statista, Statista, American Progress)

A rising problem of opioid abuse is noticeable in most states. And while the rates vary, the national average for overdose deaths brought on by the abuse of illicit or prescription drugs is 17 per 100,000 population.

20. According to 2016 drug use statistics, someone dies from opioid abuse every 16 minutes.

(Source: Statista, American Progress)

There were over 46,802 recorded deaths from opioid use alone in 2018. Additionally, 2016 statistics reported one opioid-related death every 16 minutes.

21. Around 11.8 million people used opioids in the US in 2016.

(Source: American Progress)

War on drugs stats reveal that during 2016, 3.6% of adolescents and 7.3% of young adults said they have been using opioids or heroin, along with 11.8 million adults

22. Opioid deaths increased by 48% nationwide from 2014 to 2016

(Source: American Progress)

Opioid deaths are generally most common among the white population, war on drugs statistics show. But fatal outcomes are recently increasing in other communities as well, and we can see a worrying national increase of 48% from 2014 to 2016.

At the same time, the increase was 53% percent among the Latino population, and 84% among blacks.

23. The opioid overdose death in women rose by a shocking 400% during the 2000s, according to drug war statistics

(Source: American Progress)

There were 259 million opiate prescriptions in 2012, which means if every American adult took one, there would still be 19 million left. 

What’s worse:

In the years from 1999 to 2010, the number of painkiller overdose deaths among women rose by a shocking 400%.

24. Americans consume up to 80% of all globally produced opioids.

(Source: American Progress)

Even though they make up under 5% of the global population, Americans are using the vast majority of all opioids produced around the world. Around one in a hundred Americans have some sort of opioid disorder. 

The opioid epidemic costs the US around $504 billion every year in healthcare, legal, and economic costs.

25. There were only 13,585 substance abuse treatment facilities in the US in 2017.

(Source: Statista, Statista) 

War on drugs failure statistics show this a substantial drop from 2016, when there were 14,399 such institutions. The number of underaged individuals in substance abuse treatment facilities in the United States was 59,854.

Consequences of the War on Drugs

26. Over 500,000 people in the US are imprisoned for drug-related offenses. 

(Source: Harvard Law Today)

As one consequence of the war on drugs, mass incarceration has become something uniquely American. The number of half a million people incarcerated in the US on drug charges is higher than the number of all prisoners held for all crimes in Western Europe, with the US having some 100 million people fewer.

27. Up to 80% of drug arrests are for possession, not sale.

(Source: Vox)

Drug arrests statistics show that although the focus is apparently on the supply chain and the distributors, the users are the ones that end up paying the highest price. 

Here’s the scoop:

War on drugs incarceration statistics from Human Rights Watch reported that from 1999 to 2007, over 80% of arrests were made for possession and not distribution.

28. Over 16% of people in US state prisons are drug offenders.

(Source: Vox)

Looking at state prisons, which hold some 86% of all incarcerated in the US, those held for drug-related offenses make up for over 16% of all prisoners, incarceration statistics show. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, those serving time for violent offenses make up 54% of the state prison population. 

29. Individual state policy changes in drug laws lowered the drug-related charges prison population from 20% to 16.6%.

(Source: Pew Research Center)

With state policy changes on drug possession, there’s hope that incarceration rates for those charges will lower in the future. We can see a slight drop from 2007 to 2012 drug related crime statistics, which reveal that the imprisonment rate went down from 447 prisoners per 100,000 population to 413.

On the other hand, statistics on the war on drugs show that the rate went up In federal prisons, from 59 to 62 prisoners per 100,000 population.

30. Up to 67% of people think the focus should be on treatment, not prosecution.

(Source: Pew Research Center)

The general public largely supports the changing of focus towards treatment rather than prosecution of drug users.

Only 26% claim persecution should be the primary focus, while 67% believe treatment is the key and  might lead to ending the war on drugs.

But wait! There’s more:

Only 32% believe moving away from mandatory prison sentences in non-violent drug offenses is a bad move, while 63% approve of individual state moves made in that direction.

31. A shocking  73% of Americans were in favor of  a mandatory death sentence for “major drug traffickers” back in 1990. 

(Source: Pew Research Center)

The war on drugs in America gave birth to some radical opinions in the 1990s, as 73% of Americans thought drug trafficking on a large scale deserves the death penalty.

At that time, up to 57% of respondents said the police should be able to go in without a warrant into the homes of “known drug dealers.”

32. Up to 62% of SWAT raids are drug related searches.

(Source: Vox)

War on drugs facts indicate that George H. W. Bush escalated the war on drugs programs during his presidency by giving military-grade equipment to police in the early 1990s.

We can see the militarization of the police force in the rise of SWAT raids over the last decades and the fact that 62% of them were drug-related searches.

33. Over 60,000 Mexicans have died in cartel and drug war conflicts, Mexican drug war statistics reveal.

(Source: William J Perry Center, Statista)

Over 60,000 Mexicans have been killed in the seven years of drug cartel conflict during the government of President Peña Nieto, who inherited the drug wars issue in 2012.

The University of San Diego released the data for 2018 and 2019 when the number of homicides reached a record of 34,588.

34. The war on drugs death toll in the Philippines exceeds 29,000. 

(Source: Amnesty International, BBC)

Over 7,000 people were killed in the Philippines war on drugs in the second half of 2016 alone.

President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the killings of anyone related to drug trafficking, and the orders were carried out mercilessly. An average of 34 dead per day was recorded during the first six months of his rule.

The official government police report informs of 29,000 dead.

35. There were 1,654,282 drug arrests in the US in 2018.

(Source: NY Times)

However, this is only the number of primary charges for drugs. It doesn’t include those who are charged with drug-related offenses while being arrested on another, more serious charge.

36. Over 663,367 people were arrested for marijuana-related offenses in the US in 2018.

(Source: Drug Policy, ACLU)

According to marijuana crimes statistics, the number of people arrested for a marijuana law violation in 2018 was over 650,000

Marijuana incarceration statistics show that in the period from 2001 to 2010, 88% of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests were for possession.

Additionally, up to 52% of all drug arrests in 2010 were for marijuana.

37. A black person is 3.6 times more likely to be arrested on drug charges than a white person.

(Source: Brookings)

Additionally, black people are 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for possession, even though whites are statistically more likely to both sell and use. The share of arrests for black people when it comes to drug-related arrests has been moving within the range from 23% in 1980 to 41% in 1991.

38. Whites were 45% more likely to sell drugs in the 1980s than black people.

(Source: Brookings)

White people were considerably more likely to sell drugs in the 1980s according to the data by the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth.

A National Survey on Drug Use and Health report from 2012 revealed that 6.6% of white teenagers and young adults aged 12 to 25 were selling drugs, while the same was the case for only 0.5% of black teenagers and young adults.

39. Black and white people use drugs in equal measure, apart from college, where white students use drugs by 5% more.

(Source: Brookings)

Only 10% of blacks report using drugs, the same as whites. However, when it comes to college students, 25% of white students use drugs, compared to only 20% of black college students.

40. The number of people in prison in Portugal held on drug-related charges dropped from 44% to 24% since the change in legislation.

(Source: Time)

The American war on drugs has had much less of an effect than Portugal’s law reform and decriminalization. 

Check this out:

Social costs related to the abuse of drugs in Portugal dropped by 18% from 1999 to 2015 due to changes in drug policies and the decriminalization. The number of people incarcerated for drug-related offenses went down from 44% to 24%.

41. Portugal cut its HIV infection rate from 104.2 new cases per million to 4.2 cases per million with changed drug policies.

(Source: Time)

To successfully end the war on drugs, facts and statistics from Portugal’s example are particularly instructive. For instance, since the introduction of changed laws in 1999, Portugal has drastically improved the rate of HIV infections.

In 2015, there were 4.2 recorded cases per million citizens, while that number was  a whopping 104.2 new cases per million in 2000, a good show of the different kinds of drug war statistics we can observe when we shift the focus away from criminalization.

The Bottom Line

The effects of the war on drugs are visible in many areas of life and society. However, the numbers and demographics of those imprisoned for drug-related offenses point to the fact that war on drugs failure is most prominent when it comes to the effects it has on consumers. 

The thing is:

The lack of effective strategy and ways to measure the success or failure of this endeavor has led to continued deterioration of human rights and health. And the only thing it seems to have succeeded in was creating a $1 trillion hole in budget spending over several decades.

Key takeaway:

War on drugs statistics show that going toward legalization and regulation can lead to eliminating the back market, making the use of drugs safer, and the price of addiction lower. 


Q: What is the war on drugs?

The war on drugs is a US Government effort to stomp out drug trade, distribution, and use in the US and around the world. It attempts to do so by drastically increasing prison sentences for dealers and users alike, which results in devastating human rights issues and health crises. It’s a contributing factor to the US mass incarceration trend. 

Q: When did the war on drugs start?

The first signs of the war on drugs started in the early 20th century, but the official start of the modern war on drugs is June 1971, when President Nixon declared that the drugs are public enemy number one and if left undealt will ruin America.

Q: Who started the war on drugs?

The War on Drugs as we know it started under the administration of President Richard Nixon in June 1971. The government raised federal funds for drug control, and war on drugs was proclaimed.

As Nixon’s aide later admitted, many war on drugs policies and efforts were aimed directly at controlling and criminalizing the members of the anti-war movement and the black community. Yet, the practice set in motion then still largely goes on unchanged. 

Q: How much money has been spent on the war on drugs?

The United States spent an estimated $1 trillion on the war on drugs since its beginning in 1971. The largest reported sum was in 2019 ,when $36.8 billion was spent on drug control.

Q: How did the war on drugs affect the rate of incarceration?

War on drugs statistics reveal the prison population has increased by 500% over the last 40 years, largely due to war on drug policies. They were one of the important factors in creating and enabling the system of mass incarceration that Americans are seeing and living today.


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