How Many Americans Die Every Year in The War on Drugs?

According to Esquire, it may be as many as 15,000. It's awfully hard to calculate with any certainty, but the author's point is to demonstrate that Mexico's frightening drug war death toll isn't the only one worth discussing. Americans are also paying a great price for our disastrous drug policy and it's time to take a closer look at how those numbers add up and how ending the drug war can bring them back down.

Predictably, Mark Kleiman has a problem with the article's pro-legalization angle and expresses his doubts about the 15,000 figure. My question for Kleiman is this: if that number is wrong, then what's the correct number? How should it be calculated? The bottom line here is that people are getting killed constantly in the war on drugs and we're trying to do something about it.

Kleiman hypocritically attacks both sides in the drug war debate for failing to use what he considers "factually and logically sound arguments," while simultaneously insisting – without any proof -- that legalization will create catastrophic spikes in drug use. He could be right, but we don’t really have any way to find out other than by doing exactly what he says we shouldn’t do. Personally, my gut instinct is that Kleiman is partially right, but that the benefits of reducing the collective harms of prohibition will decisively outweigh the new harms he anticipates. Again, there's only one way to find out.

Moreover, it's just crazy to accept the current body count based on the assumption that alternatives can't possibly work. LEAP's Neill Franklin nails this point:

But what about the argument that drugs will spread like wildfire if we don't keep bringing down the hammer?

"First, there's no concrete study to support such a belief — it's all completely speculation," Franklin insists. "So in my left hand I have all this speculation about what may happen to addiction rates, and then I look at my other hand and I see all these dead bodies that are actually fact, not speculation. And you're going to ask me to weigh the two? Second, if the addiction rate does go up, I'm going to have a lot of live addicts that I can cure. The direction we're going in now, I've got a lot of dead bodies."

Regardless of how legalization might impact addiction rates, it's just a fact that people are presently getting shot to death over drugs on a daily basis. If you think it has to be that way, you're wrong. People do not have to be murdered in the streets constantly. We can change that, we really can, and then we can do some more number crunching and decide if regulating drug sales is worth it or not.
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Another drug warrior

Another rabid drug warrior is seeking a senate seat.I certainly hope DCRnet will alert the public about Massachusetts Atty Gen Martha Coakley who is seeking to replace Ted Kennedy .She was one of the biggest opponents of the recent decriminalization initiative and participated in spreading the outragious lies.She is no friend of the reform movement and the last thing we need in the senate is another rabid drug warrior.

If you keep on...

...doing what your doing, you keep on getting what you've got, and worse. Why not take a LEAP of faith and make a change. Control freaks are so fearful.

2 Questions for Mark Kleiman

Q1. What right(s) does 'Joe Six-Pack' have that 'Tony the Toker' doesn't... understanding that 'social acceptability' and 'what the bible/god or JC thinks' are NOT rights... merely opinion?

Q2. Understanding that Alcohol is a far more dangerous drug than cannabis... are you willing to 'kill or incarcerate' 'Joe Six-Pack' for his drug abuse... remembering that a sixpack a week is considered drug abuse by religious rehabbers?

Truth is treason in the kingdom of lies!
Thomas Paine IVXX

borden's picture

more of a lukewarm reformer

Kleiman would probably legalize marijuana, though I shouldn't speak for him. I certainly share Scott's critique of his arguments, and I think he's mistaken in not embracing some form at least of regulated legalization of hard drugs. He's certainly doesn't do the debate any service by trying to dismiss the legalization side of the debate. But he's not a hard-core drug warrior, and he's not really a full-on prohibitionist either. He's more of a lukewarm reformer.

David Borden, Executive Director the Drug Reform Coordination Network
Washington, DC

Scott sizes-up the flaws in Kleimans article & assumptions...

Scott sizes-up the flaws in Kleimans article & assumptions... very well.

But I'm gonna play devils advocate and stir it up some... with the understanding that the libertarian in me FAVORS repealing drug laws because they violate the rule of law (no debate and no checks & balances) and our inalienable rights to Life, Liberty, the Pursuit of Happiness (and Legally Aquired Property).

First, Kleimans arguement about increased rec. usage as a result of increased mmj use is supported by some reformers as a socio-economic fact or inevitability. There's debate on recent CATO articles that I believe support the same theory. Regardless, any perceptions will pose major problems for the reform movement because the vast majority of parents will want evidence... not theories? Remember, it was this 'Rabbit Hole Around Every Corner' theory that allowed Nixon to dramatically escalate the drug war in the 70's.

Secondly, Kleimans concern about legalizing 'all drugs' is warranted to some degree when you consider the differing addictive (harmful) qualities of the various drugs. Doesn't change my belief they should all be legal but lets face it marijuana is nothing like crack, meth, or heroin. I live in a larger city (250,000+) with no shortage of tweekers & crackheads... they are so pervasive anytime someone does something stupid we jokingly accuse them of being 'a fucking crackhead'.

Just Saying,
Thomas Paine IVXX

B.S. I have a lot more faith in marijuana users acting responsibly then crackheads! And I think science would have a lot more to say on the subject too? Catch 22!


Public poilicy moves at a snails pace. Let's face it, thousands more will die and resistance to legalization or even decriminalization will continue with fierce opposition. Should we just give up? Sometimes I just feel overwhelmed with the ignorance of Prohibitionists. MJ is an anti-cancer remedy. My closest of family have been repeatedly affected by cancer's deadly effects. Screw the GOVERNMENT!!!! My fear of cancer is greater that anything that can happend to me because of my decision to use a benign substance. So now I go to smoke a huge bowl of what the United States Goverment has decided is bad for me (to help me deal with the madness). J. Velasco

It's not only deaths, it's wasted time in prison

Remember, there are 500,000 non-violent drug offenders in jails and prisons in the U.S. That means each and every year 500,000 prison years are served -- divide that by 75 years (a reasonable lifespan) and that's 6,667 wasted prison lifetimes...and this happens year after year! Of course, this is not the only effect -- think of the family and loved ones that suffer while their spouse, father, mother, children, etc. do hard time for the consentual crimes involving drugs. You never get these years back. It must be particularly hard for the children who go without parents, and it must have negative psychological repercussions. We are feeding detrimental cycles with our prohibitionist policies. One day the drug war will be viewed as one of America's most tragic endeavors. People will talk reparations...

- George

Not only would you have live addicts you can cure

you would have funds to do it from a reasonable tax on commercial sales, and you would have addicts who can trust public health workers, won't need to commit robberies to get money for black market drugs, won't feel that they are being treated like animals, which is a dangerous thing to have people feeling, and dosage and purity would not be an issue so less damage to health and danger of an overdose. And those scary cartels would lose most of their profits and power. Or if the war on selected drugs isn't enough fun for you yet, stay the course.

Mark Kleiman writes: "1.

Mark Kleiman writes:

"1. Alcohol - the drug we decided to legalize and regulate - kills about 100,000 people a year: several times as many as all the illicit drugs combined."

That doesn't mean we can't better regulate alcohol. We have done a very good job of reducing tobacco consumption in the last decade, and just recently the president signed a bill that is supposed to have the FDA regulate sales (making sure all ingredients in cigarettes are listed), as well as advertising. I expect that to help even more; we'll have to wait and see.

"4. Yes, street gangs do some drug dealing. But it's absurd to imagine that the gang killings would disappear if the drug market became legal."

Isn't it generally understood that a huge percentage of murders (very likely more than 50% in many places) are directly related to the drug trade? If he doesn't agree legalization would (in a few short years, if not faster) drastically reduce the murder rate, he should explain himself.

Kleiman also wrote, btw,

that cocaine would be ten times cheaper if legal. He says that more people would use because of this (as well as because of the fact that it is legal), and he sees that as inherently enough of a reason to not legalize it. I don't know how many people would use, and I don't know how bad it would be that more people use cocaine or how afraid I should be about more people using cocaine. However, in the specific case of addicts committing robberies, this is fantastic news. Unless the amount of cocaine use increases tenfold, you would have a decrease in robberies. Since it probably won't be anywhere near a tenfold increase, the amount of robberies will probably decrease dramatically.

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