What Are the Economic Costs of Drug Abuse?

handing over money

How much do drugs really cost the United States? We all know that drugs are taking a major toll on society, but what is the real impact that they have on our country? It’s difficult to answer this question with any type of certainty since it would be almost impossible to tally up every one of the many different types of costs and the total value of lost potential as a consequence of drug abuse and addiction.

In 1990, however, an attempt was made to find an answer, in a study sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The study was titled, “Economic Costs of Alcohol and Drug Abuse and Mental Illness: 1985,” and it was the result of an exhaustive analysis of the available economic and public health statistics, with the goal of estimating the dollar value of the costs of drug abuse, alcohol abuse and mental illness in this country. The answer they found was truly staggering, with a price tag of $218.1 billion for the losses our economy suffered that year as a result of substance abuse and mental illness. Drug use and alcohol abuse together accounted for 52% of the total, a figure that amounts to $113.41 billion. With inflation factored in, this figure adds up to $246.55 billion.

Where did all that money go?

Some of it was spent directly on treatment and support of those with substance abuse problems or addiction. Other funds were devoted to caring for those who suffered injury as a result of overdose or drug-related accidents. Others still were absorbed by the expenses associated with providing funeral and burial for those who lost their lives as a result of drug abuse. Beyond these direct costs, we also have to take into account the costs associated not with the money that was not spent, but rather the money that wasn’t made in the first place. The missed days at work, the hours spent high, drunk or hungover on the job, the mistakes and errors caused by the mental fog of a substance abuser. Beyond these losses associated directly with the expenses and inefficiency of the drug user, there are also the economic costs sustained by the family and friends of the user, those who spend their days and nights worried and preoccupied over the wellbeing of their loved one, those whose own lives are continually upset by arguments and fights, broken promises and trust betrayed. Viewed in this light, drugs are truly a poison that have a draining effect on the whole society; it’s not true that a drug user is only hurting himself.

Drugs, the Criminal Justice System and the Economy

Another factor we have to take into consideration in any discussion of the impact of drugs on the economy is one that could not have been addressed in the study mentioned above, given that it was basing its information on statistics from 1985. It was, after all, around that same time when Congress enacted the notoriously harsh minimum mandatory sentencing laws which have sent so many millions of Americans to prison. Since that time, our prison population has exploded to the largest in the world, both in terms of per capita rates of imprisonment and in terms of the total number of prisoners. The costs of keeping so many people behind bars is staggering in its own right, but it pales in comparison to the economic losses sustained by the fact that the prisoners were convicted. Even after their release from prison, the fact of having a criminal conviction can make it difficult or impossible to find work that pays a decent wage, meaning that many of the men and women who have been caught using drugs over the past generation have been denied any chances of a career. For every one of them, there are others, spouses, and children who have to do without proper support and may end up on public assistance, some of whom who will live a life of hardship and deprivation only to end up using drugs themselves. This cycle feeds itself, and it takes a shocking toll on the health of our economy, our culture, and our society.



Sue Birkenshaw

Sue has worked in the addiction field with the Narconon network for three decades. She has developed and administered drug prevention programs worldwide and worked with numerous drug rehabilitation centers over the years. Sue is also a fine artist and painter, who enjoys traveling the world which continues to provide unlimited inspiration for her work. You can follow Sue on Twitter, or connect with her on LinkedIn.