At What Cost: The Economic Argument for South African Legalization

The Anti-Drug Alliance SA recently published a report announcing a pro-legalization stance for South Africa. The report, entitled “At What Cost,” has one message: the war against drugs is no longer economically feasible. 

Published by Quintin van Kerken, director of the Anti-Drug Alliance South Africa, “At What Cost” details the monetary breakdown Gauteng (a region of South Africa) spends annually fighting the regional drug industry. Gautang was chosen for study by the ADA SA due to its status as the most populous and wealthiest provence in South Africa. The lowest possible figures were used when calculating costs associated with the war against drugs.

The figures in “At What Cost” suggest that South Africa is spending billions of Rand each year fighting the war on drugs with very, very poor results. The ADA SA calculates that it costs an average of R329.21 per day to keep an offender in prison in Gautang (about R9876.35 per month). The average conviction rate for drug related crimes across South Africa is nine percent, meaning that of the 23,000 drug-related arrests made per annum, 69,000 offenders are going to court, and only 2,070 will be convicted.

The South African Criminal Offenses Act stipulates various sentences for drug related crime ranging anywhere from two years for possession, to 25 years for more serious crimes. Hypothetically, a minimum conviction of two years would cost a South African tax payer in Gautang R245,328,534 per year.

These figures were calculated by estimating the average amount of man hours spent on each case as well as the average hourly rate for workers associated with criminal proceedings. Average hourly rates were calculated for the arresting officer, investigating officer, officer in charge of the holding cells, prosecutor, and magistrate. It should be noted that there are typically more people associated with a criminal case (defense lawyer, translator, bailiff) but for illustrative purposes the ADA SA omitted all non-essential personal.

The minimum man hours associated with a case were also calculated. An arrest and booking typically takes an average of 2 hours, if not more. Investigating time varies by case but the minimum figure used by the ADA SA was 12 hours. The average time spent in court was estimated to be 4 hours total.

These figures were vital to calculating the total cost of arrest, processing and conviction. The total cost of arresting 23,000 drug related suspects per year is R2,048,380. The cost of detaining a suspect overnight, a typical practice in South Africa, is R8,193,520. The average cost of investigating these cases is R9,417,580. The cost of trial for the 2,070 offenders who will be convicted (using the nine percent conviction rate) is R3,390,329. At this point, using the calculated figures of average hourly salary plus average amount of man hours, the total cost of convicting a suspect for a drug related crime is R38,464,469. Thats about £2,331,716.

The previous total does not include the amount of money required to incarcerate 2,070 convicted offenders for one year. The number is conservatively estimated to be R245,328,534 - bringing the grand total (cost of arrest, detention, trial plus incarceration for one year) to R283,793,003 or £17,203,531. An increased conviction rate only leads to an increased amount of tax money spent. With an 18 percent increased conviction rate, the calculated total rises to R567,586,006 per annum. Its should be noted that only R13,000,000 worth of drugs are seized in this entire process - thats £788,060.

“At What Cost” suggests that R283,793,003 is an absurd amount of money spent on a war that is failing miserably. ADA SA estimated that with R283,793,003, 5,255 new public sector homes could be built housing an estimated 15,000 people in Gautang. The report goes on to suggest that, perhaps, this is a better allocation of South African tax revenue. The conclusion must be reached that legalization, not prohibition, is economically more beneficial for South Africa.

A full version of van Kerken’s report may be read here: