Did Drugs Win the U.S. War on Drugs?

For the last 40 years, America has used its criminal justice system to prosecute drug abuse. Has this practice been effective? The following visualization will provide a background on the U.S. War on Drugs, an overview of drug use over time, and a look at trends in arrests and incarcerations. It will then show correlations between drug use and arrests (or a lack thereof), some of the implications of the War on Drugs, and end with a case study on the impacts of Portugal’s decriminalization of drugs.

Scroll Down to Explore

What is the War on Drugs?

The “War on Drugs” refers to American drug policy focused on drug prohibition, military aid and intervention aimed at reducing the illegal drug trade. These policies have the intention of reducing production, distribution, and consumption of drugs that the UN and other countries have made illegal. Most money spent on these policies focus on the supply side (i.e. policing the drug traffickers) rather than the demand side (i.e. reducing demand through public health initiatives), although some years have seen increased spending on drug treatment programs.

Timeline of the U.S. War on Drugs

Explore this timeline by hovering over each dot to read the event that happened that year. Once you have read an event, the dot will turn black. The line above the timeline represents the percent of respondents who are frequent drug users. Note that the drug use data begins in 1985.

Types of Illicit Drugs

Below are a series of scheduled and illicit drugs that will be discussed in other parts of this visualization. Hover over the icons to learn about each one.

Illicit Drug Use in the U.S. Since 1979

“Illicit” drug use encompasses both illegal drugs and the use of prescription drugs or other chemicals in a manner for which they were not created (see the prior section, Types of Illicit Drugs, for more information). This data is reported by percentage of respondents.

You can deselect any drugs by clicking on the colored box in the legend. This allows you to focus on a subset of drugs. "Any Illicit Drug" means anyone who has done one or more of the drugs listed. We recommend deselecting Any Illicit Drug and Marijuana to better view the lesser-used drugs.

Sources: National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, 1979 - 2001 and National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2002 - 2014

“Public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.”

President Richard M. Nixon, 1971

U.S. Drug Arrests

The War on Drugs was intended to stem drug abuse by disincentivizing the manufacture, selling and use of drugs. This “all-out offensive” can be seen through drug arrest rates.

To use this chart, click and drag on portions of any of the vertical axes to see a subset of the data. This will create a grey bar along the axis that you can then slide up or down by dragging it with your mouse. Double-click elsewhere on the same axis to reset the selection.

Key: lighter colors (orange) = more recent years; darker colors (blue) = more distant years

Arrests Per 100K

Source: FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program Data, 1980 - 2014

“The turn to pressing murder-like charges against drug dealers is a reminder that crises and panics prompt many in law enforcement to turn to punishment as their default solution.”

Daniel Denvir, Salon.com, 2015

U.S. Drug Sentences

Sentencing and incarceration records are only coded as drug-related, and are not broken down into manufacturing, sale, or possession.

Hover over different sections of the chart to see how many people were incarcerated that year with that sentence.

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Corrections Reporting Program, 1991-2014

Has the criminalization of drug use achieved the goal of the War on Drugs?

When the War on Drugs began, Nixon claimed that drug use was the number one enemy facing America, and that cracking down on drug use via the criminal justice system was the way to solve it.

How much should drug use decrease to conclude that criminalization has achieved its goal of reducing drug use? Has drug use declined by that amount? The graph below will help you explore correlations between drug use trends and arrest rates over time.

Correlations Between American Drug Use and Arrests

If criminalization is effective, drug use should decrease as penalties become harsher. In other words, the lines should diverge. How effective do you think the War on Drugs has been?

Sources: BJS, NHSDA, and NSDUH

Implications of the American War on Drugs

The War on Drugs is the longest-running war the US has engaged in, and has touched the lives of millions. Many of those repercussions have had unintended, devastating impacts on the vulnerable, racial minorities and women. See below for a few of those impacts.


76.9% of drug offenders go back to prison within 5 years of release.


The drug war budget has increased 82% in the last 15 years, up to $31.1B for FY 2017.


1 in 3 black men born in 2001 can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.


Between 1980 and 2014, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 700%.

How the U.S. Incarceration Rate Compares

This visualization collects incarceration rates across the world. Today, 25% of the incarcerated population is in prison for drugs. The total incarceration rate in the US is 40% higher than #2, Cuba. Portugal, slightly above the median worldwide, incarcerates 136 people per 100K of population.

Source: Prison Policy Initiative

“There are methods that could be used that would be very likely to succeed, but they’re not being tried.”

Noam Chomsky, 2012

Portugal Case Study: A Potential Solution?

After a near-50 year dictatorship, Portugal experienced a difficult period with drug abuse. The country became a natural gateway for drug trafficking given its newly opened borders and location. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Portugal practiced similar drug criminalization policies to the United States. But by 1999, approximately 100,000 people (1% of the population) were addicted to heroin. In 2001, the country decided to decriminalize drug use, institute a public health model (shifting drug control from the Justice Department to the Ministry of Health), and expand the welfare system. While drug use continues to be illegal, and drug trafficking is still prosecuted as a criminal offense, drug usage violations are exclusively administrative violations, and have therefore been removed from the criminal law realm.

A decade later, the combination of these policies appears to have worked. Drug-induced deaths have declined sharply, past-year and past-month drug usage declined, and drug use among the 15 to 24-year-old population, those most at risk of initiating drug use, also declined. One recent study suggests that while decriminalization has had no notable adverse effects on drug usage rates, in many categories, they are now among the lowest in the EU. Drug-related imprisonments have also decreased, alongside a sharp 4x increase in visits to health clinics treating addiction, while maintaining relatively stable drug use rates.

Some analysts and social scientists have proposed caution when reviewing these statistics, stating that there may be other factors involved. Yet, these findings are promising. Moreover, significant resources were opened up. Were the US to take a similar approach, one study estimates an annual cost savings of $41.3B, not including associated tax revenues.

How drug use changed in Portugal over the last 10 years

Explore the charts below to see how drug use in Portugal declined over time. Rate of continued use means a reduction in the proportion of the population who have ever used a drug and continue to do so.

Source: Transform Drug Policy Foundation

We Can Do Better

The War on Drugs method of incarcerating to stem drug abuse has not been effective. After 40 years of waging this war, drug use rates are nearly identical to what they were in 1971. Yet reduced terms, more emphasis on public health initiatives, and the decriminalization of certain drugs have started to make an impact in the US since 2008. What would the US look like if we abandoned the old model and attempted more treatment-focused approaches, like Portugal’s?