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How Much Does America Spend on Anti-Drug Campaigns?

Drugs are a serious issue, people cry. They’re ruining our youth, killing our babies, and zombifying our elders! These sort of claims are often made by anti-drug campaigns, but are they realistic? And how much money is spent on anti-drug messages, anyway? Is it effective?

There are so many questions that could be asked, of course, but few in power seem to want to hear the answers when they don’t conform to the rather narrow view many of them seem to have. Take marijuana, for example. Several presidents commissioned studies (Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton) to discover whether marijuana was dangerous and whether it should remain banned. When the results from each one came back saying that marijuana was generally safe but should be handled with care (i.e., taxed appropriately to prevent serious abuse), the presidents ignored them and carried on piling money into anti-drug campaigns.

No to Marijuana

Now that we’ve got that element of frustration out of the way—after all, we don’t like seeing people who don’t really do very much wrong imprisoned needlessly—we need to look at who typically finances these campaigns.

Obviously, the first big spender of anti-drug campaigns is the government. To give you an idea of the scale of spending, $1.4 billion was spent between 1998 and 2005 on a single coordinated anti-marijuana campaign. A $43 million study, again paid for by the federal government, stated that the campaign had been a failure and that attitudes toward marijuana had altered—more people considered that marijuana use was acceptable than before the campaign.

Interestingly enough, the Office of National Drug Control Policy states the government has spent $31 billion between 2009 and 2012 on drug control; this includes $10.1 billion on addiction recovery in 2012 alone, but it also includes $9.4 billion on incarceration and law enforcement. However, the figures don’t quite add up.

The budget for 2013 states that the ONDCP will spend $1.3876 billion on drug prevention, which includes the vast majority of anti-drug programs. Let’s hope they’re a little more successful than the last few programs.


Nonprofits are the next group of agencies that promote the anti-drug message, but the huge number of nonprofits devoted to anti-drug messages means it’s difficult to estimate how much money is spent on them. In addition, quite a large number are financed by the government, so it’s hard to keep track of it all. A reasonable estimate might be around $200 million per year, much sourced from donations and government funds.

Nonprofits tend to push an even narrower view than government agencies. While this is useful in crack-addled neighborhoods in Detroit, this is not so useful to those who have money and enjoy a line of coke with their cigars.

The issue with anti-drug programs is that they bring drugs to a wider audience. They also normalize drugs, in that they promote the idea that many people are doing drugs. They also promote the effects of the drug. If they don’t, people see the adverts as being farcical and unrealistic. This creates a feeling of mistrust and sometimes even a willingness to try out the drug that hadn’t been present before.

The best rehab programs are ones that encourage a healthy dialog along with an acceptance that some people will always experiment. They don’t overstate the dangers of various drugs, and they also involve parents and so on. This works very well in Holland, where the laid-back attitude is legendary, but they also have some of the lowest Schedule I abuse rates in the Western world.

In short, it’s not the kids, teens, and twenty-somethings who need to be educated. Education should begin at home in a knowledgeable and loving atmosphere. In addition, the huge amount of spending on anti-drug advertising would be much better off spent on addiction programs for those incarcerated on nonviolent drug charges.

We don’t like watching people suffer needlessly, and drug awareness programs in their current guises consistently miss the plot. The money would be much better off sorting out the core issues of drug addiction: the increasing isolation of Americans, the fear and mystery around drugs, and the complete inconsistency of the supply.

It’s interesting to see that the government still wants to lock people up rather than help them get better from what the White House’s own website calls a disease. Drug addiction and detox treatment should be for everyone, not just the rich.

Feel differently? read the related view at our Big Pharma: Are They Advertising Addiction? post.

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