The Cost-and-Benefit Arguments Around Enforcement

The war on drugs has always been expensive and its effectiveness debatable, but in the current budget-crunch environment, it's more of a target than ever.

In the 2010 edition of “The Budgetary Implications of Drug Prohibition,” Jeffrey Miron, director of undergraduate studies at Harvard University, estimates that legalizing marijuana would save $13.7 billion per year in government expenditure on enforcement of prohibition.

“Legalization eliminates arrests for trafficking and possession," Miron says. “Second, legalization saves judicial and incarceration expenses. Third, legalization allows taxation of drug production and sale.”

Miron estimates that eight states each spend more than $1 billion annually enforcing marijuana laws: New York, $3 billion; Texas, $2 billion; California, Florida, $1.9 billion; Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, $1 billion.

Arizona—another border state—spends $726 million, while Coloradospends $145 million. North Dakota spends the least—$45 million a year—reflecting both its location and population density.

The budget for the federal Drug Enforcement Administrationhas increased 40-fold since its inception in 1973, from $65 million (and 2,800 employees) to $2.6 billion (11,000) in 2009.

The American public eyes these expenditures with growing alarm, says Aaron Houston, chief lobbyist for the Marijuana Policy Project.

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“With the Mexican cartels procuring 70 percent of their profits in the U.S. from marijuana sales alone, and with the U.S. Joint Forces Command saying that Mexico may collapse under the weight of the cartels' insurgency, it seems only a matter of time before the American public gets fed up with the failed policy of marijuana prohibition that destroys lives every day,” says Houston.

Others, including public officials such as former two-term New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson as well as top former law enforcement officers such as Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, make the same argument.

Others in law enforcement and drug treatment disagree, saying the war on drugs is working and worth it.

"The current balanced, restrictive, and bipartisan drug policies of the United States are working reasonably well and they have contributed to reductions in the rate of marijuana use in our nation," says Dr. Robert DuPont, who is both a former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and White House Drug Chief, as well as a treatment specialist.

Miron’s massive study, first released in 2005, concludes that state and local government would save money and resources every step of the way, from arrest to prosecution to incarceration.

“I don’t think there is any data to suggest any payoff for greater enforcement,” Miron tells “If you are making lots of arrests then you are spending more money making arrests, lots of prosecutions, etc. In terms of showing that differences in enforcement lead to differences in use rates, no, there isn’t any evidence to support that."

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Supporters of enforcement also warn that economic arguments alone should not shape the greater debate.

"Even with the U.S. economy struggling, we should not buy into the argument that vices should be legalized, taxed and regulated—no matter how much revenue we think it may generate," Asa Hutchinson, a former DEA director, U.S.. Congressman and U.S. Attorney, tells CNBC.