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Drug Law Enforcement Expenditures and Drug-Related Deaths

by David F. Duncan

Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies

Brown University

Providence, Rhode island


We hear that, "drugs kill." This truism refers both to deaths attributable to drug overdoses and other fatal effects arising from drug use and also to the large number of murders associated with the drug trade. Preventing deaths of both these types is presumably one of the goals of our drug laws and their enforcement.

In a recent report the Drug Policy Foundation (1993) examined the association between the Federal expenditure on drug law enforcement and the number of murders in the USA. They found that drug law enforcement "has not slowed the killings." This study examines in a similar fashion the association between the size of the federal drug law enforcement budget and drug-induced deaths during the eleven year period from 1981 through 1991.


The independent variable was the Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) annual budget (Office of National Drug Control Policy, 1992, pp. 212-214). The DEA is not the only federal agency engaged in enforcing the drug laws but it is the one agency engaged exclusively in this activity and is the lead agency for drug law enforcement.

The dependent variable was drug-induced deaths as defined by the Division of Vital Statistics (1993, p. 58) of the U.S. Public Health Service and as recorded in death certificates filed in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Accidents, homicides and other causes indirectly related to drug use are not included. This variable was measured both in terms of the number of drug induced deaths annually and the annual age-adjusted death rates per 100,000 population. Pearson product-moment correlations were calculated between each pairings of measures.


The DEA budget increased annually over the study period from $216 million in 1981 to $692 million in 1991. Over the same period, drug induced deaths ranged from 7,106 in 1981 to 10,388 in 1991 with a peak of 10,917 in 1988. Drug-induced death rates ranged from 3.1 per 100,000 in 1981 to 3.8 per 100,000 in 1991, with a maximum of 4.2 per 100,000 in 1988.

The DEA budget was significantly and positively correlated with both the number of drug-induced deaths (r = .86, t = 5.11, p = .001) and death rates (r = .74, t = 3.33, p = .009).


DEA Budget and Drug Related Deaths

Year DEA Budget Drug-Induced Deaths
  (in millions) Number Rate
1981 $216 7,106 3.1
1982 $239 7,310 3.1
1983 $255 7,492 3.1
1984 $292 7,892 3.2
1985 $344 8,663 3.5
1986 $372 9,976 4
1987 $486 9,796 3.8
1988 $493 10.917 4.2
1989 $543 10,710 4.1
1990 $558 9,463 3.6
1991 $692 10,388 3.8


The finding that drug-induced deaths are positively rather than negatively associated with the federal expenditure on drug law enforcement does not support the view that enforcement of the drug laws protects the public's health. Mortality data are not ideal measures of the public's health but they are among the most complete and reliable data by which the public health can be measured (Ferrara, 1980; Duncan, 1988) and preventing deaths is part of the rhetoric of the drug war.

It would not be fair to take this as an evaluation of the DEA's effectiveness as a government agency, since the DEA has a number of official objectives and preventing drug-induced deaths is not one of them. This study is intended only as a preliminary examination of the relationship between drug law enforcement and the public health.


  1. Division of Vital Statistics (1993). Advance report of final mortality statistics, 1991. (Monthly Vital Statistics Report, Vol. 42, No. 2, Suppl.) Hyattsville, MD: Public Health Service.
  2. Drug Policy Foundation. (1993) Choose health, not war: drug policy in transition. Washington, DC: Author.
  3. Duncan, D. F. (1988) Epidemiology: basis for disease prevention and health promotion. New York: Macmillan.
  4. Ferrara, C. P. (1980). Vital and health statistics: techniques of community health analysis. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
  5. Office of National Drug Control Policy. (1992). National drug control strategy: budget summary. Washington, DC: Author.

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