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A Stunning Visualization of the War on Drugs

How do you visualize the cost of the War on Drugs?

How do you visualize the cost of the war on drugs? sought to find the answer with their interactive WebGL project, “Visualizing the Drug Economy,” which shows the financial and social costs for America’s drug war at scale. (Editor's note: this is only viewable using Firefox and Chrome browsers). One part of the graphic depicts the annual use of cocaine as a giant pile on a football field. The Statue of Liberty, placed to the right for reference, might need to pick up her robes a little to avoid getting it powdered in white. The pile is substantially larger than a house.


More shocking is the wide expanse of graves illustrating the 41 people who died every day in Mexico in a drug-related violent deaths during 2010. In 2009, 3,123 Americans died monthly as a result of drugs. For the first time, drugs are killing more people than car accidents. On average, 826 people die in Los Angeles County each year due to illegal drugs. The human cost of the drug trade is very expensive.

Part of the reason for lives lost to drug-related crime lies in the increased gun violence of Mexican cartels. Around 90 percent of the cocaine in the United States comes from South America via Mexican cartels. The cost of cartel violence in Mexico is unimaginable. Beheadings, kidnappings, and massacres are all associated with the rise of cartels. The U.S. unofficially finances these cartels, buying up to $29 billion in illegal drugs and paying for their transfer across the border. More than twenty Mexican mayors have been killed in the escalating war on the cartels along with thousands of Mexican citizens.

While the U.S. supports the cartels financially by purchasing their goods, the other arm of support provided is much more deadly. Every year, Mexicans are killed by U.S.-produced firearms. Through a process called “direct commercial sales,” the Mexican government can purchase firearms from private U.S. manufacturers. The State Department, which is responsible for approving these purchases, estimated that 26 percent of guns sold made it into the hands of the cartels in 2009. Since then, the State Department has stopped releasing the numbers of guns sold to Mexico annually.

That number has to be high, however. From 2007 to 2012, there were 100,000 guns seized from the cartels. A full 68,000 of those were from the United States. That shows that almost 70 percent of all the guns used by cartels are crossing the border in one direction, while drugs cross going in the other. Meanwhile, the United States continues to be the world’s super-consumer of cocaine, responsible for 46 percent of the global market in 2010. That’s 442 tons, up from 181 tons in 2008.

More than 500,000 Americans are incarcerated currently for drug-related crimes, costing the United States about $400 every second. That’s $12.6 billion a year, simply to maintain the current number of incarcerated citizens. Add that to the $23.8 billion spent annually on the War on Drugs and compare it to the estimated $46.7 in revenue the U.S. would gain from taxing illegal drugs. Once you add up all of those factors, the current cost of illegal drug use is sky-high.

What can I do about it?

There are many ways that we as citizens can start reversing the damage of the war on drugs. One key way is to advocate the use of rehab instead of prison. Rehab been shown to reduce the chance of re-offending by 67 percent—and it gives the human being involved in treatment a second chance at life.

Investing in their future contributions to society is also far more cost-effective than incarceration. In a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, rehab was shown to cost only about half of what it costs to put a drug offender in prison. The average 25-month prison sentence costs $64,338 while two years of residential rehab, including vocational training and support, only costs $32,974.

Rehabilitating those with substance abuse problems will also lessen the demand for illegal drugs, which will have positive effects stretching all the way from the gun trade in Mexico to the poppy fields in Afghanistan.

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