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Basic Facts About the War on Drugs

8. How many millions of people will have to go to prison?

There are currently about 1.5 million people in state and Federal prisons and jails throughout the United States. At the current time, at least 24 states are under Federal court orders to relieve prison overcrowding.

The following chart shows the growth of the US prison population since 1960. The US prison population was relatively stable from about 1926, when figures were first compiled, through 1970. After this point, the effects of Nixon's war against drugs, and later the Reagan and Bush war against drugs, produced a dramatic increase in the number of prisoners.

There are an estimated thirty to forty million people who have used illegal drugs in the last year. If we imprisoned all of them, we would have to build a prison large enough to hold the combined populations of California, Arizona, and New Mexico. The total cost to imprison them for five years, including the costs of arrest and prosecution would be roughly ten to fifteen trillion dollars, or about ten times the total Federal annual budget. This does not include the related costs to society which would be caused by the imprisonment of millions of gainfully employed, tax-paying citizens.

There doesn't seem to be any clear answer to this question. I have asked public officials of all kinds, including law enforcement officers, elected officials and all three of the US Federal Drug Czars. To date, the only person who has ever replied with an actual numerical estimate is Michael Levine, one of the DEA's former top agents. He estimated that the optimum number of drug offenders to put in prison would be about 2.7 million -- in addition to the people who are currently in prison. His assumption, he said, was that we would put all of the addicts in prison, and he estimated the number of addicts at about 2.7 million, based on other government figures. Mr. Levine's plan would require that, for every prison cell which now exists, we would have to build three more just like it. He did not say what he would do about the fact that even this plan would leave tens of millions of recreational drug users free to continue their drug use with little fear of prosecution.

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