Friday, October 9, 2015

How Expensive is Ending the War on Drugs, Anyway? (Part 6 of 13)


(Note: This is the sixth of a series of posts dealing with Bernie Sanders's platform. For the first installment, go herePart 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 7)

I saw this posted on Twitter the other day, and I think it's worth taking a second look at, because it demonstrates a remarkable lack of understanding of Bernie Sanders's platform. Senator Sanders makes it very clear how we will pay for everything that he proposes, but understanding the nuance of this requires first that I disabuse you of a common misconception.

There are many in this country who decry government spending as if the government is incapable of doing anything well. But the critical issue of our times, as Robert Reich eloquently explains on a regular basis, is not how big government is. The critical issue of our times (and Bernie Sanders, more than any other Presidential candidate, understands this) is who government is working for. Whether we're talking about spending in the private sector or spending by the government, at the end of the day, everything that is spent in our economy counts as a cost for America. If Wal-Mart spends $1,000,000 improving the efficiency of the intersections near its stores, it has the same effect on our economy as if the state, local, or federal government spends $1,000,000 on an identical project.

So, with that in mind, how does America pay for Ending the War on Drugs, as described in the flyer pictured above? Let's take a look:


This is another one of Senator Sanders's proposals that would actually save money, rather than costing it. As it stands right now, the United States spends $51 billion annually waging war against drugs. And this doesn't even include the reduced productivity that is a direct result of these policies. Since 1980, the number of people in the United States incarcerated for drug offenses has increased from 50,000 to 500,000, and the bulk of this increase has affected minority populations, rather than the white majority. Black Americans represent approximately 12% of U.S. drug users, but 34% of those arrested for drug offenses and 45% of those incarcerated in state facilities for drug crimes.

Senator Sanders's proposal to replace incarceration with treatment for drug offenders could reduce costs by as much as $20,000 per person annually. Using the 500,000 figure for people incarcerated for drug offenses, that could save as much as $10 billion annually.

Regarding medical or recreational use of marijuana, Senator Sanders supports legalization of medical marijuana, and is guardedly optimistic about experiments by state legislatures in recreational marijuana legalization. Colorado in 2014 saw $52.5 million in government revenue as a result of marijuana legalization, and as of June 2015 had seen an increase year-to-date of 66.5%. The 2014 figures represented government revenue from taxes on legal marijuana of approximately $10 per person. If that were scaled nationwide, revenue for federal legal marijuana could be as much as $3.5 billion annually.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that every dollar spent on addiction treatment programs can reduce healthcare costs by $4 to $12, which means if we put all the money we've saved in what I described above, we could reduce national healthcare costs by anywhere from $54 billion to $90 billion. But that doesn't include the approximately $4,700 per prisoner that was spent on those 500,000 prisoners, only the $20,000 saved by spending on treatment rather than incarceration. That means there's an additional $2.35 billion spent on addiction treatment, increasing the healthcare cost reduction to $63 billion to $100 billion.

As with transforming our energy system, how can we afford NOT to do this?

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