The total inmates in custody in U.S. prisons and jails in 2007 was 2.3 million—the largest in the world
5.6 million
(1 in every 37 people)
Total number of American adults that are either in or have served time in prison (2008)
Approximate number of Americans in prison for drug-related crimes in 1980
Approximate number of Americans in prison for drug related crimes in 2008
1 in 4
Ratio of inmates in American prisons incarcerated for drug-related offenses (versus other crimes) in 2008
1 in 3
Ratio of women in American prisons incarcerated for drug-related offenses (versus other crimes) in 2008 (the incarceration rate for women has increased at almost double the rate for men since 1980)
African Americans made up 13 percent of the total U.S. population, but accounted for 53 percent of sentenced drug offenders in state prisons in 2003
1 in 106
Ratio of Caucasian American men in prison over age 18 (2008)
1 in 36
Ratio of Hispanic American men in prison over age 18 (2008)
1 in 15
Ratio of African American men in prison over age 18 (2008)
1 in 9
Ratio of African American men in prison ages 20 to 34 (2008)
$13.7 billion
Amount the federal government spent on drug law enforcement in 2008
$10.6 billion
Tax dollars states spent on corrections in 1987
$44 billion
Amount of tax dollars states spent on corrections in 2007
$8 billion per year
Cost of incarcerating drug offenders in state and federal prisons (2005)
$3.2 million
Federal drug control budget for drug treatment and research (2008)

The U.S. War on Drugs: An Overview

Billions upon billions of tax dollars. Thousands of wrongful arrests. Skyrocketing incarceration rates and harsh sentencing laws.

After more than two decades, America’s war on drugs is fraught with controversy, with critics from both the political left and right calling it a colossal failure.

Get an overview of its history and policies and view related statistics below.

Drug War Policies

Although the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has been in existence since 1973, the U.S. government made the war on drugs a top priority in the 1980s, during the Reagan administration. The passage of the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act institutionalized the DEA’s Task Force Program with the goal of preventing drug abuse and halting drug-related crime. Thirteen regional task forces were established and hundreds of drug enforcement agents joined the FBI, sparking a national drug crackdown.

In addition to the rise of this federal tier of drug law enforcement, state-level efforts increased; millions of dollars of federal aid was provided to states for fighting drugs, but few guidelines were given for doing so.

By about twenty years later, drug task forces had exponentially increased their ranks. In 2003, there were almost 6,000 local police department officers and nearly 3,500 sheriffs’ officers working full-time on anti-drug task forces. The FBI estimated that nearly two million drug-related arrests were made in the U.S. in 2006.

Are Drug War Policies Working?

Regional narcotics task forces, primarily funded by the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program —known as federal Byrne grants and amounting to 520 million dollars in the fiscal year of 2007—have come under fire for wrongful corruption and abuse.

A 2002 report by the ACLU of Texas identified seventeen scandals involving Byrne-funded anti-drug task forces in Texas alone, with dozens of scandals involving everything from evidence tampering to racial profiling to the misuse of millions of dollars of federal money found nationwide.

Byrne funding is often based on convictions and crime statistics, and over the years, more and more cases of fabricated evidence and wrongful arrests have been exposed. As attorney Jeff Blackburn said in TULIA, TEXAS, “All you had to do was show that you were being productive…if you could make numbers, and poor black people in a community like Tulia are the easiest people to get convictions on.”

The Bush administration repeatedly called for cutting funding for the Byrne program due to its ineffectiveness, but faced opposition from a powerful law enforcement lobby and a “tough on crime” Congress. President Barack Obama's 2009 economic stimulus package called for $3 billion in new Byrne grants, but the U.S. Senate and House compromise bill he signed into law allocates $2 billion for the program through 2010.

Flaws and Criticism

Current U.S. drug war policies have come under fire for being discriminatory and ineffective. The war on drugs has not succeeded in halting narcotics production in countries such as Colombia or their eventual export to the United States. And Americans still spend an estimated sixty billion dollars a year on drugs.

As of 2008, one-quarter of all American inmates are in jail due to drug-related crimes, which are primarily non-violent. In January 2005, a publication by Open Society Policy Center stated, “The abuses which occurred in Tulia are a mirror image of systemic problems facing the nation’s criminal justice system as a whole.” The U.S. imprisons a larger proportion of its adult population, for longer sentences of time, than any other country in the world; incarceration rates are racially disproportionate and have skyrocketed. The U.S. has less than five percent of the world’s population, but nearly a quarter of its prisoners.

One main reason for this increase in incarceration was a shift in sentencing laws. The state of New York first imposed mandatory prison sentences for drug possession and drug sales, known as the “Rockefeller drug laws,” in 1973. The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Law established mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses on the federal level. This law also imposed far higher penalties for crack cocaine offenses than for powder offenses, requiring a possession of 100 times more powder cocaine than crack cocaine in order to enact the same mandatory minimum prison sentence of five to ten years. This 100 to one ratio continues to be widely criticized by citizens and lawmakers for being overly harsh and for disproportionately targeting low-income communities and people of color. In 2006, for instance, African Americans and Hispanics comprised 96 percent of those sentenced under federal crack cocaine laws.

In late 2007, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets sentencing guidelines for federal judges, reduced the mandatory minimum for crack cocaine offenses and applied it retroactively, allowing more than 19,000 of those convicted to petition for a reduced sentence. The commission’s decision was recognized as a first step toward reform. But only Congress can repeal the federal law that continues to create staggering racial disparities.

View a map of drug task force scandals in the U.S. >>

page updated 2/23/09


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