Alcohol Vs. Illicit Drug Spending In the US: What’s Higher?

Studies show yearly American spending on illicit drugs has fluctuated between $125 billion and $145 billion from the early 2000s into the mid-2010s. An analysis of 2016 spending found nearly $150 billion spent on illicit drugs, the highest in recent time. One year later, the American public spent $158 billion on alcohol, which demonstrates how large the market for illicit substances has become.  The data focused on cannabis, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines. The more obscure the drug, the more difficult tracking its use.

American Drug Spending Trends

Cannabis brings in by far the most money, and has been steadily growing as more states have legalized recreational use. Americans spent $52 billion on cannabis in 2016, which is approximately the same amount as what was spent on cocaine and methamphetamines combined. With legalization, other forms of marijuana have become more popular, muddying statistics like potency of product and weight. When everyone is consuming the same version of a product, it’s much easier to understand any changes. Oils, waxes, and edible cannabis all complicate the traditional drug data benchmarks. Heroin is nowhere near as large as cannabis, but it brings in more than the other two drugs tracked in the research.

Throughout the years tracked in the study, heroin use grew around 10%. Some theorize the opioid crisis has created an increased demand in heroin as more people become addicted to the widely available prescription opioids. With increased demand comes increased supply, and the amount of heroin seized at the southern border has increased over the years as well.

Out of all the recorded drugs, the researchers are least confident in the data surrounding methamphetamines. Government funding for drug research programs has been cut, which means the less popular a drug, the fewer resources available for studying it. While methamphetamines may not have the same pull as cannabis or heroin, the research available is revealing a troubling pattern of growth. Americans in 2016 are using more methamphetamines than they did in a 2005 spike in drug popularity.

While most of drug spending has increased, the same cannot be said for cocaine. Cocaine buying fell sharply from 2005 to 2010, then leveling off until 2016 where spending increased. While the data provides an interesting look at the drug use trends in the US, what can be done with the information?

Using The Data

In order to create meaningful policy, lawmakers need data on the demand and relative price of each drug. These drug spending estimates also give researchers a rough idea of how many people are using each drug and how much they consume. The Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring (ADAM) drug researching effort provided data like this and more, but the government defunded it in 2003.

Data collection efforts still exist, this study comes from the RAND Corporation, but reduced support means reduced quality and quantity in government programs. A lesser form of ADAM returned in 2007, but the program folded again in 2013. Drug researchers lament the absence of the program citing the useful data it found alongside the spending data. ADAM also screened urine samples from incarcerated drug users which allowed them a view into the use patterns and types of each drug people were using. If the demand and spending on drugs increases, research becomes all the more important. As more states legalize marijuana, that alone will cause growth in this spending, and gathering knowledge could help preempt any unforeseen issues.

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Michael Muldoon

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  • Michael Muldoon earned a B.A. in Media Studies from Penn State University, but instead of shifting into an academic career in social science, he has decided to put his skills to work in the pursuit of helping those struggling with addiction. He enjoys spending his free time at the climbing gym with friends.

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