The Border Wall is a Red Herring in the Drug War

Would the border wall proposed by President Trump reduce America’s drug problem as he has suggested? The numbers say expanding treatment would be a better investment.

Five Figures to Consider

$38 billion estimated cost of building the Border Wall (not free)
$7.46 cost savings in reduced crime and increased productivity for every dollar spent on drug treatment
32¢ cost savings in reduced crime and increased productivity for every dollar spent on drug and asset seizures by federal agents
$14.7 billion 2016 federal spending on substance abuse prevention and treatment programs
$15.8 billion 2016 federal spending on drug-related domestic law enforcement, seizures and source country control

Say you’re a parent of teenagers addicted to drugs. Would a wall around your yard solve your problem? Obviously not. Before you laid the final brick, the drugs would be coming over the wall, under the wall and through the gate. The Mexican and Colombian drug cartels are just as enterprising. With more than $39 billion in wholesale proceeds on the line, they will smuggle drugs by tunnel, airplane, boat, truck and U.S. mail as long as there are drug customers on the other side of that wall.

U.S. drug policy focused on curtailing supply and criminalizing use has (we gotta say it) hit the wall. In spite of spending $50 billion annually on the “drug war,” addiction rates and their associated social and financial costs have reached all-time highs. The U.S. is the world’s number one consumer of illicit drugs, and a 2,000-mile, $38 billion border wall will not eliminate that ignominious distinction. The Border Wall is a red herring in our failing war on drugs. Continuing our unsuccessful, supply-focused approach sustains violent criminal activity without reducing supply. When one drug supplier or route is knocked out, another pops up in its place.

If our government really wants to have a positive impact on our drug problem, it should redirect spending to drug prevention, education and treatment programs with proven track records in curbing our appetite for drugs. A dollar spent on your relative’s, neighbor’s or co-worker’s treatment yields an average return of $7.46 in reduced crime, theft and criminal justice expenses related to their addiction. Throw in addiction-related health care costs, and the savings jumps to $12. Add lost workdays, family stress and community breakdown, and the multiplier grows even higher. Compare that to the return of  32¢ saved for every dollar spent on drug and asset seizures by federal agents. When it comes to drugs, our budget priorities are out of whack with their economic returns. In 2016 the federal government spent $15.8 billion trying to curb drug supply and only $14.7 billion on substance abuse and treatment programs to curb demand.

Limited government resources shouldn’t be wasted. Building, maintaining and staffing a border wall with the aim of limiting our supply of drugs without addressing demand would be a protracted and expensive undertaking with little effect on reducing addiction. That would be a negative return on investment and a VERY BAD DEAL.

Dollars spent on treatment are 23 times more productive than dollars spent trying to stop drugs at our borders. Finite federal funds should be directed toward programs that deliver the most impact for the least cost.