Two Million Dollars a piece – The cost of drug use and violence

The average cost to society of a lifelong criminal = About $2 million

I’ll get into more of this in later posts (I already talked about the cost of addiction prevention versus treatment versus enforcement), but if that cost of drug use and violence doesn’t cry out for a better application of money to prevention and addiction treatment, I don’t know what does.

At that cost, even if a treatment method costs $10k per client, it only needs to work for 1 out of 200 people to break even, and benefit society while doing so. In reality, our success rates are much higher than .5% (1/200) and closer to 15%-25%. When you take into account the fact that average cost of a month in addiction treatment (residential, outpatient treatment is much cheaper) is indeed about $7000-$10,000, it seems silly not to avoid the cost of crime by greatly reducing drug use, and hence criminal behavior.

NIDA, the government’s top agency for drug and alcohol abuse research recommends three months of treatment, but even then, success rates as low as 2% would leave us with a profit by providing treatment. Screw it, even a whole year of treatment would save us money if it succeeded but I can tell you that funding for that kind of addiction treatment length is almost non-existent, especially when compared to the actual need.

So with success rates about 20 to 30 times higher than our break-even point, we would literally benefit, and I’m talking financially, from helping people with treatment as expensive as $100,000 or more (as long as it worked). One of the things I’ve learned in all my work has been that while some individuals are actually interested in helping people, yes, even if they’ve been dirty drug addicts who have commited crimes, almost everyone cares about money. So forget for a second about all the social justice arguments to be made for helping addicts and think about the cost savings to our society… It makes sense.

True, true, not all drug users who would enter treatment would become lifelong offender, but if you’re still keeping tabs, even if only 1/20 or so do, we’re more than breaking even here. In fact, with our prison populations exploding as more and more drug users enter the system, I bet we’re in for some real savings.


Dodge, K. A. (2008) Framing public policy and prevention of chronic violence in American youths. America Psychologist, 63, 573-590.

10 responses to “Two Million Dollars a piece – The cost of drug use and violence”

    • Well, the effect would be a complex one. Here’s a try:

      The overall cost per person would probably drop, because possession itself would on longer be a crime, removing incarceration and court costs for those arrests. However, it is rare that the people we’re talking about are arrested for possession alone, and realistically, legalization would include marijuana only, further restricting its effect.

      Not to be underestimated is the tax on legalized drugs, but also the overall increase of costs related to drug use in society (think reductions in productivity, increased medical costs, etc.)

      Like I said, a complex answer, but I think legalization should be studied as an option; until then, this is all conjecture.

  1. It does seem that there needs to be a better way. With prisons here in California way overpopulated, they are now considering releasing some of the nonviolent criminals early. My first thought is to focus on treatment for the drug offenders. It seems an overall better idea for offenders to be getting treatment than sitting in a prison cell, and the cost is certainly a consideration.

  2. Im not sure I understand. Are you saying NIDA should identify the most cost-incurring drug using criminals and prioritise these individuals for treatment ahead of non-criminal drug users? Wouldnt that mean that all you have to do is commit costly crime to get your treatment free of charge? Why would cost-incurring drug users deserve treatment ahead of non-criminal drug users? Is ‘saving money’ a good enough reason?

    And what if the most cost-incurring drug using criminals didnt want treatment? Should treatment be enforced? If yes, you’d be framing treatment as a punishment.

    Third, who pays and who saves? You said that there clearly isnt enough funding for everyone, so who gets priority funded and who decides this? Do we select the people for whom treatment is most likely to work in order to break even? If so, what would that say about our dedication to help those least likely to be helped?

    It seems you’d be caught in a paradox: you want to make savings so you treat those most likely to respond favourably to treatment; but those who most ‘need’ treatment wont get it because its not financially prudent to take this chance with them.

  3. Link to prevention vs treatment vs enforcement does not work. Can you provide it? Thanks

  4. Gail, link should be fixed. Christopher, I have no idea how you’ve taken my argument that we need to provide addiction treatment instead of incarceration into that comment.

  5. I didnt say that. Youre saying that we should treat drug users to lower the crime rate/cost of crime, yes? So Im asking if you are proposing a system of priority treating the highest cost-incurring drug using criminals. Fairly straightforward question.

    • You didn’t say what? All I said was that I don’t understand your original comment…

      “Christopher, I have no idea how you’ve taken my argument that we need to provide addiction treatment instead of incarceration into that comment.”

  6. Yes I get that youre in favour of treatment over incarceration. And I get that you want to treat people in order to reduce costs to society. But your piece only provides an economic rationale for treating drug users – you havent explained how any such plan might work.

    My question again is: are you proposing that, in order to lower the criminal cost to society, we priority treat the drug users who have or are likely to commit higher cost-incurring crimes? This would make good economic sense but would be morally questionable.

    • My point is that treating all drug-relevant offenders makes more sense that jailing them but that yes, for the highest cost offenders this should be a moral, and economic imperative. I’m not suggesting we priority treat anyone over anyone else – I’m suggesting that we treat everyone rather than jail them (unless of course they chose jail). I have a hard time understanding your issue with this, but I guess that’s par for the course…

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