What Americans Spend on Illegal Drugs

Number of Chronic Users of Cocaine, Heroin, and Meth (based on NSDUH) (RAND/ONDCP)

Number of Chronic Users of Cocaine, Heroin, and Meth (based on NSDUH) (RAND/ONDCP)

The RAND Corporation has prepared a facts and figures filled report for the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) entitled “What America’s Users Spend on Illegal Drugs: 2000-2010.” Make of it what you will (RAND and ONDCP aren’t exactly the most trusted institutions), but there’s plenty of interesting and thought-provoking information. You can find a PDF with the entire report here; this excerpt is from the executive summary:

A sense of scale is a prerequisite to thinking sensibly about illicit drug markets. For example, knowing whether a country consumes tens, hundreds, or thousands of metric tons (MTs) of a prohibited substance is critical for understanding the impact of a three-MT seizure at a border crossing. But decisionmakers need more than a sense of scale; they also need figures with enough precision to be able to determine whether the markets have become larger or smaller over time.

In January 2012, the U.S. White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) asked RAND to generate national estimates of the total number of users, total expenditures, and total consumption for four illicit drugs from 2000 to 2010: cocaine (including crack), heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine (or meth). This report explains our methodology and presents our results.

Among our main findings:

  • Drug users in the United States spend on the order of $100 billion annually on cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and meth. While this total figure has been stable over the decade, there have been important compositional shifts. In 2000, much more money was spent on cocaine than marijuana; in 2010 the opposite was true.
  • From 2002 to 2010, the amount of marijuana consumed in the United States likely increased by about 40 percent while the amount of cocaine consumed in the United States decreased by about 50 percent. These figures are consistent with supply-side indicators, such as seizures and production estimates.
  • Heroin consumption remained fairly stable throughout the decade, although there is some evidence of an increase in the later years. Most of the heroin consumed in the United States comes from poppies grown in Colombia and Mexico, but data deficiencies surrounding associated production figures from 2005 to 2010 make comparisons difficult. There was a steady increase in the amount of heroin seized within the United States and at the southwest border from 2007 through 2010.
  • Methamphetamine estimates are subject to the greatest uncertainty because national datasets do not do a good job of capturing its use. Three particular challenges were that the Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring Program (ADAM-I) was discontinued in 2003, just before meth use was believed to be at its peak (2004–2006); ADAM-II did not start until 2007 (2007–2010) and it covers very few counties with substantial meth use; and the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) changed how it asked about meth use in 2007. While multiple indicators are consistent with an increasing trend in meth consumption over the first half of the decade and a subsequent decline through 2008, there is not comparable agreement as to the level. Further, we suggest that the most defensible position concerning trends from 2008 to 2010 is simply to admit the data are insufficient to provide clear guidance.
  • For all of the drugs, total consumption and expenditures are driven by the minority of heavy users, who consume on 21 or more days each month.


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17 Comments on "What Americans Spend on Illegal Drugs"

  1. Craig Bickford | Mar 22, 2014 at 11:04 am |

    I’d be interested in seeing data for the last three years as well, to confirm or deny my suspicions that this heroin epidemic they are publicizing is not real. It conveniently started ramping up as far as I can tell (maybe I am missing some information relevant to this time table) after Hoffman died.

    • Ignant Tom | Mar 23, 2014 at 3:22 am |

      I’d say it’s very real the whole city of Charlotte has boomed with heroin there. Right when i graduated i had lost 3 friends already. Now i can’t say the whole country has experienced this but i lived in a very affluent area where kids just wanted to get a really good high for the lowest price. So i can only assume that it’s not just my state that has seen a rise in heroin, the real question is where is it coming from?

  2. BuzzCoastin | Mar 22, 2014 at 12:47 pm |

    I loved when Bush came out and said, “We are losing the war against drugs.” You know what that implies? There’s a war being fought, and the people on drugs are winning it.

  3. Rhoid Rager | Mar 22, 2014 at 2:58 pm |

    This whole drug thing looks like a really lucrative business to be in. If only governments and banks could somehow find a way to get in on the action, the economic trickle down would be good for all of us.

  4. “We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.
    Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.”

    • mannyfurious | Mar 23, 2014 at 11:45 pm |

      If you look closely enough into the data, you’ll see a fairly significant drop in drug consumption in the latter half of 2005 and the early part of 2006.

  5. Thurlow Weed | Mar 22, 2014 at 3:47 pm |

    When liquor prohibition in the US ended the price of liquor to consumers eventually rose, taxes were collected, and private fortunes made far beyond what bootleggers and gangsters could have ever achieved. Drug prohibition is coming to an end because there is more profit to be made in regulating this trade than conducting the “war on drugs”. Bearing this in mind, add to the mix that the US government has always turned to Rand Corp., among others, to provide statistics to justify whatever it wants to do.

    • gustave courbet | Mar 22, 2014 at 10:02 pm |

      That seems to be true of cannabis, but the black market heroine and cocaine trades are, along with weapons, the black market currencies of the world, and are needed by a variety of state and non-state actors for their shady doings. For this reason alone, I see H and C as staying illegal far into the indefinite future, unless the public gets wise.

      • Thurlow Weed | Mar 22, 2014 at 10:12 pm |

        Maybe I’m misreading you but shady folks can always find ways of conducting shady dealing. What’s illegal and what’s not has nothing to do with that. Also, I don’t see legalization of drugs and the profit to be made from selling them like liquor and tobacco as a unified effort among the 1%, more a loose confederation of interests that is lately congealing into something along the line of international trade.

        • gustave courbet | Mar 22, 2014 at 11:17 pm |

          I agree with you in part but drugs already hold that position on the black market and have caused massive corruption throughout the western world that would be hard to extricate the political system from. The loose confederation of interests that benefit from the illegal drug economy are intelligence agencies, terrorist organizations, big banks, criminal networks, and everyone connected to them via the free flow of untraceable cash. While there is money to be made in legal drugs, there are tremendous benefits to them remaining illegal. You might check out “The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia” by McCoy or Peter Dale Scott’s “Drugs, Oil, and War.” There’s also a documentary called “The New American Drug lords” by Daniel Hopsicker.

    • mannyfurious | Mar 23, 2014 at 11:46 pm |

      I disagree wholly. There is far, far more money in keeping drugs illicit, that’s why it’s such a pain in the ass to get any of it legalized.

      • Thurlow Weed | Mar 24, 2014 at 11:43 am |

        It was like that. I think it has changed a lot, especially profit margins of agencies supplying the “war on drugs”. These people are weighing options. It will be a long, long time before you can buy heroin in the same store you used to buy cigarettes and beer, but that marketing method is only one of many if drugs become legal.

  6. All that unpaid tax revenue going to waste.

  7. mannyfurious | Mar 23, 2014 at 11:45 pm |


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