The War on Drugs is a War on Working Families

Overcriminalization hurts American workers. The biggest impact is from the War on Drugs.

  1. Over a million Americans are arrested and convicted for drug law violations every year, more than for violent crimes or any other type of offense.
  2. The cost of these convictions and of drug law enforcement eliminates jobs and depresses our economy.
  3. The War on Drugs increases crime, disease transmission, and overdoses.
  4. The War on Drugs is primarily enforced in black communities, though black people are not more likely to use drugs.
  5. Legal regulation can reduce youth drug use more effectively than prohibition.

See below for three ways you can take action!

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The War on Drugs burdens millions with criminal convictions

The War on Drugs keeps millions of Americans unemployed or underpaid. In 2012, there were 1.5 million drug arrests, three times more than for all violent crimes. 82% of the arrests were for possession alone, and the majority was for marijuana possession.[i] Many innocent people plead guilty because they cannot afford to sit in jail for months awaiting trial.[ii]

Because of a single conviction for drug possession, millions of Americans are discriminated against in the job market. And, even if they were never convicted, their arrest record shows up in many background checks. Most of these people are reliable workers whose families are devastated by their arrest. Those recovering from addiction desperately need jobs to maintain their recovery. Policies that prevent them from finding jobs make it more likely that they will relapse – hurting working families and communities.

The War on Drugs decreases employment and depresses the economy

The War on Drugs locks many people out of the economy, not just those who are currently incarcerated. Economists estimate that as many as 60 million Americans have a criminal record, and roughly 15% of those records are drug-related.[iii] Since anyone with a criminal record has trouble getting a job, they can’t afford to buy the products and services they need, lowering sales for American businesses by an estimated $34 billion per year. Reduced sales decreases employment in every sector, including manufacturing, retail, health care, and transportation. The War on Drugs also depresses the economy by spending over $59 billion of taxpayer money every year on efforts that fail to stop drug sales on street corners.[iv]

The War on Drugs increases crime, disease, and overdose deaths

The War on Drugs increases crime by raising the price of drugs. Today in the U.S., heroin costs about eight times more than gold.[v] Heroin addicts need over $100 per day to buy heroin. Many support their habit by stealing and dealing drugs. Only 2% of the population is addicted to illegal drugs.[vi] In order to buy drugs, that 2% commits 30% of all property crime and 25% of all drug crime.[vii] Their offenses cost businesses an estimated $9 billion a year in property crime, shoplifting and security costs.[viii]

People who inject drugs help fill America’s emergency rooms. Paraphernalia laws push them to share needles and inject in hiding. They suffer from HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C, and skin infections. Tens of thousands die every year from overdoses and poisoning. If we started treating these people as patients instead of criminals, we could save thousands of lives and roughly $6 billion in health care costs every year.

The War on Drugs primarily targets communities of color

The War on Drugs weighs the heaviest on communities of color. Though black Americans are no more likely to use marijuana than white Americans, they are over four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.[ix] The police find it easier to search cars, homes and individuals for drugs in communities of color, though they would find just as many drugs in white communities.[x]

The War on Drugs is not effective at reducing youth drug use

Regulation protects youth better than prohibition, since prohibition places the drug market in the hands of drug gangs and cartels. Today, high school kids report that it is easier to buy marijuana than beer, because drug dealers don’t card for age. Youth use of illicit drugs has remained roughly constant over the last 20 years of prohibition, while the last 20 years of tobacco regulation have decreased youth smoking by 50%. Legal regulation of drugs does not send the message that drug use is okay, just as legal regulation of cigarettes does not send the message that smoking is okay.

Three Actions You Can Take:

  • To reduce arrests, convictions and imprisonment, join the effort for marijuana decriminalization and legalization in your state.
  • Advocate for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) programs in your city and state. Through LEAD, police send suspects who are addicted to drugs directly to treatment and social services, instead of jailing them. LEAD programs help people rebuild their lives, keep them out of the justice system, reduce crime rates, and save money.
  • Campaign to seal criminal records for minor offenses after five years of a clean record. Our justice system should help people get back on their feet, not brand them as criminals for the rest of their life.


To learn more, contact:

Eric Sterling
Criminal Justice Policy Foundation



[i] “Crime in the United States 2012 – Arrests." FBI Uniform Crime Report. Washington, DC: US Dept. of Justice, September 2013: 1.

[ii] Cohen, Thomas and Brian Reaves. “Pretrial Release of Felony Defendants in State Courts.” Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, November 2007: 1. Accessed January 8, 2016.

[iii] Solomon, Amy L. “In Search of a Job: Criminal Records as Barriers to Employment.” National Institute of Justice Journal 270, 2012. Accessed January 8, 2016.

FBI. “Estimated Number of Arrests: United States, 2013.” Federal Bureau of Investigation Crime in the United States 2013 Report. Table 29. Accessed January 8, 2016.

[iv] NDIC. “The Economic Impact of Illicit Drug Use on American Society.” National Drug Intelligence Center, 2011. Accessed January 8, 2016.

[v] United Nations. World Drug Report 2006. Chapter 5. Accessed January 8, 2016.

[vi] NIDA. “DrugFacts: Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction.” National Institute on Drug Abuse website, September 2009. Accessed January 8, 2016.

[vii] BJS. “Drugs and Crime Facts.” Bureau of Justice Statistics website. Accessed January 8, 2016.

[viii] Mark, T., Woody, G., T, J., & Kleber, H. The economic costs of heroin addiction in the United States. Drug and Alcohol Dependence. 2001;61(2):195-206.

Sterling, Eric E. “A Businessperson’s Guide to the War on Drugs.” Business Council for Prosperity and Safety website. 2015. Accessed April 15, 2015.

[ix] ACLU. “The War on Marijuana in Black and White.” American Civil Liberties Union, 2013.

[x] Stuntz, William J. “Race, Class and Drugs.” Columbia Law Review 98(7), 1998.

ACLU. “Race and Ethnicity in America: Turning a Blind Eye to Injustice.” American Civil Liberties Union, 2007.