Memo to our new president: Federal, state and local governments face increasing challenges as they look for more revenue and try to reduce costs. Reducing public employee headcounts and postponing capital projects have been good ways to reduce budgets, but bolder approaches are needed.

Public policy approaches to the “war on drugs” have been debated over the years, but really not often enough using dollar figures. By ending the prohibition on some or all illegal drugs and taxing and regulating their distribution instead, U.S. governments at all levels could save over $50 billion per year, according to various studies.

The aggressive criminalization of drug use began under President Richard Nixon, and the momentum of the war on drugs increased rapidly with arrests that increased quickly over time, according to a report by the Beckley Foundation (page 2):

Figures show that drug arrests have more than tripled in the last 25 years, reaching a record of some 1.8 million in 2005 (Mauer & King 2007); in 1980 there were 581,000 drug law arrests, climbing to a total of 1,846,351 in 2005. 81.7% of these arrests were for possession offences, and 42.6% of arrests were for marijuana offences. Of the 450,000 increase in drug arrests during the period 1990-2002, 82% of the growth was for marijuana, with 79% for marijuana possession alone (Boyum & Reuter, 2005).

What is the cost of spending precious police resources chasing down drug users? A 2010 Harvard study says: