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Basic Facts About the War on Drugs

2. How many people use drugs in the United States?

This is a difficult question to answer with any certainty.

The Federal Government's Household Survey on Drug Abuse, conducted annually, is the most commonly cited set of statistics on the prevalence of drug use. According to the latest surveys, cited by the DEA themselves, there are about 12.7 million people who have used some illegal drug in the last month and perhaps 30 to 40 million who have used some illegal drug within the last year. Of the 12.7 million who used illegal drugs in the last month, about 10 million are presumed to be casual drug users, and about 2.7 million are addicts.

But there are a number of problems with these figures. The survey is conducted by calling people on the telephone at random and asking them about their use of illegal drugs. Some of the problems with this technique are:

  1. It only reaches people who have a telephone. If the effects of drugs are as bad as some people claim, it seems only reasonable that a lot of addicts would no longer have a telephone.
  2. It only reaches people who answered the telephone. There are many groups of people who would not necessarily answer the phone, including addicts who are out looking for drugs, as well as business people out for a two-martini lunch.
  3. The survey crew calls people they don't know and asks them if anyone in their household has committed a felony (used drugs) recently. In a time of increasing penalties for drug use, and increasing publicity about those penalties, it seems only logical that most people would not answer this question entirely honestly, particularly if they were currently using drugs and, therefore, were acutely aware of the penalties. Rather than a measure of the number of people who use drugs, the Household Survey may be a better measure of the number of people stupid enough to answer the question.

Other surveys put the number of drug users at levels that are perhaps twice as high as the figures produced by the Household Survey on Drug Abuse. The very disparity of the estimates of various surveys points to one of the problems caused by a general drug prohibition. Because these drugs are illegal, it is difficult to get accurate information about their use.

The source for the number of drug users comes from, among other sources, the Household Survey on Drug Abuse, a Federal survey, available through any of the sources listed here. The costs to imprison them are based upon figures published by the Department of Justice, available through the sources mentioned here.

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