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Americans are now spending nearly $150 billion each year on illegal drugs

Americans are now spending nearly $150 billion each year on illegal drugs. According to a new report from the RAND Corporation, Americans spent nearly $150 billion on illicit drugs in 2016. Of the money exchanged for cannabis, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine, a large portion was spent by just a small share of individuals who use drugs on a daily or frequent basis.

The researchers have estimated that the spending on these four illegal drugs fluctuated between $120 and $145 billion each year from 2006 to 2016. By comparison, in 2017, about $158 billion was spent on alcohol across the United States.

For cannabis, total spending from both legal and illegal sources increased by 50 percent within the same decade, rising from $34 to $52 billion. This market is roughly the size of the cocaine and methamphetamine markets combined, but the money generated from heroin sales is starting to approach the value of the marijuana market.

Study lead author Greg Midgette is an assistant professor at the University of Maryland and an adjunct policy researcher at RAND, a nonprofit research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges.

“To better understand changes in drug use outcomes and the effects of policies, policymakers need to know what is happening in markets for these substances,” said Midgette. “But it is challenging to generate these estimates, and given that critical data sources have been eliminated, it will likely be harder to generate these figures in the future.”

After a steep decline in cocaine use from 2006 to 2010, consumption fell more slowly through 2015 before reversing in 2016. The results of the study indicate that 2.4 Americans were using cocaine at least four times a month in 2015 and 2016. While the number of users did not change significantly in 2016, cocaine consumption grew as its cost declined. Americans are now spending nearly $150 billion each year on illegal drugs

Heroin use increased by approximately 10 percent each year between 2010 and 2016, but these estimates could be low. The study authors found the potential for heroin use among individuals without criminal histories, which contributed to some of the uncertainty. 

In the same six-year time frame, regular cannabis use jumped by nearly 30 percent. Weight-based consumption estimates are no longer used for cannabis due to many major changes in the market, such as changes in the potency of the drug as well as the widespread introduction of products such as oils and waxes. 

The greatest amount of uncertainty was found in projecting the number of methamphetamine users. This is because national data sets do not accurately account for its prevalence. 

“While there is considerable uncertainty surrounding national methamphetamine estimates, multiple indicators suggest methamphetamine use has exceeded its previous peak around 2005,” said study co-author Beau Kilmer, who is the director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center. “While there is much more we can do to reduce opioid use disorders and poisonings involving synthetic opioids, we cannot ignore the growing problems associated with methamphetamine use.”

The research was funded by the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Syda Productions

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