Report: Cost of War on Drugs in N.J.? $11.6B — in just last decade

N.J. Policy Perspective says 50-year fight has been failure, offers suggestions and solutions

The state of New Jersey spent $5.1 billion to arrest people for drug offenses, $2.2 billion to prosecute them and $4.3 billion to incarcerate them — in the just the past 10 years. Despite this, the rate of deaths due to overdoses has risen.

The numbers are part of a first-of-its-kind report by New Jersey Policy Perspective, released Thursday in connection to President Richard Nixon’s declaration of a “War on Drugs.”

According to Jenna Mellor, the report’s author and a drug policy consultant with NJPP, the fight has not been worth it.

“By every measure, the War on Drugs has been an absolute failure for the state of New Jersey,” she said. “The state’s racially motivated and stigmatizing drug laws actively harm the very people they are meant to protect.

“Lawmakers and the public alike have a lot of unlearning to do as we untangle 50 years of punitive policies.”

NJPP officials said the report attempts to calculate the financial and social costs of New Jersey’s drug war over the last decade. It outlines the extent to which discriminatory drug war arrests have been institutionalized in New Jersey, the reality of who uses drugs in the state and the harms they experience, and the taxpayer dollars New Jersey has recently invested to enforce drug war arrests, prosecutions and incarcerations.

The report includes concrete recommendations for lawmakers to dismantle the effort and replace it with investments in evidence-based harm-reduction programs that NJPP officials say are proven to save lives. It also suggests lawmakers decriminalize all low-level drug use, possession and sales — and acknowledge that the polices of the past have been a failure.

NJPP President Brandon McKoy said he hopes the report will spur change.

“This new research confirms what has been apparent for decades: the War on Drugs is a financial drain on New Jersey taxpayers that is only exacerbating racial inequalities and higher rates of overdose deaths,” he said.

“Now, it’s up to the same state Legislature that caused this devastation in communities of color to correct course and set New Jersey on a new path that prioritizes harm reduction and recovery — not arrests and punishment. We’re calling on all state leaders to do their part to finally recognize drug use like the public health issue it is.”

The report was applauded by U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-12th Dist.) who, days earlier, introduced federal legislation with Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) to decriminalize the personal use and possession of all drugs. The Drug Policy Reform Act would end the War on Drugs as we know it and replace it with a health-centered approach to drug use.

“The War on Drugs was never about helping people — it was about criminalizing them,” she said. “It was a cynical political calculation that has negatively impacted millions of people.

“The bill Congresswoman Cori Bush and I are introducing, the Drug Policy Reform Act, shifts our approach to drugs from a punitive, criminal approach to a restorative, health-based and evidence-based approach. We need an approach that recognizes that we need not lock people away; that those who are struggling should be handled by doctors and counselors, not judges and jailers.”

Click here to read the full report.

Here are some of the key findings of the report:

  1. New Jersey spends more on the drug war than public health approaches to substance use. 

New Jersey’s $1.2 billion annual investment in drug policing is 8.5 times greater than the state’s budget for addiction services; 27.9 times greater than the state budget for homeless prevention and shelters; and 292 times greater than the state budget for harm reduction programs.

  1. Despite billions in drug war spending, overdose deaths in New Jersey have skyrocketed over the past decade — killing nearly 20,000 New Jerseyans.

Overdose death rates have grown 2.1 times greater for white people; 3.6 times greater for Black people; 3.8 times greater for Hispanic/Latinx people.

  1. White New Jerseyans use and sell criminalized drugs at higher rates than New Jerseyans of any other racial and ethnic group, but Black people are arrested 3.3 times more often than white people for drug war violations. 

Racial disparities amongst drug war arrest rates have grown 22.6% since 2015.

The NJPP, along with advocates across the state of New Jersey, are calling on the state to:

  1. Decriminalize all low-level drug use, possession and sales.

New Jersey should move low-level drug possession and sale out of the criminal code, and set up support systems for people who use drugs that include harm reduction, evidence-based treatment, housing and access to high-quality mental healthcare.

New Jersey’s drug decriminalization should include easy-to-navigate pathways for expungement for people who were previously arrested for low-level drug possession and sale, along with easier pathways for offenses like burglary and theft that are correlated with drug prohibition.

  1. Publicly acknowledge the harms caused by the drug war.

New Jersey policymakers should recognize the 50th anniversary of Nixon’s declaration of a War on Drugs and the role New Jersey played in enforcing a drug war that has proven racist and ineffective.

  1. Publish public data pertaining to drug war enforcement.

This will require reforms within the New Jersey State Police, the Administrative Office of the Courts and the New Jersey Department of Corrections.

  1. Conduct an audit of all public agencies to identify punishment-based policies, practices and regulations that discriminate against or exclude people who use drugs.

We need to map where drug war punishments are being enacted, and conduct a racial impact analysis for each agency about how people are impacted.

  1. Invest in equitable, evidence-based drug policies that prevent problematic drug use and support the health and well-being of people who use drugs. 

This includes fact-based drug education for your people, investments in evidence-based care for people who use drugs and a Heroin-Assisted Treatment pilot program that can provide alternatives that can start the pathway to recovery for many.

  1. Substantially invest in Black and Latinx communities most harmed by drug war arrests.

New Jersey’s communities with the highest rates of drug war arrests and incarcerations need an influx of resources and material investments to nurture community-led economic and housing development, employment options, alternatives to policing and incarceration, and harm reduction, drug treatment and mental health care programs that prioritize healing over punishment.