Drug policy

Reports and campaigns
Data visualizations
Related issues
Research library

How much of mass incarceration is a result of the war on drugs? Few questions about the justice system are more common — or harder to find clear answers to.

Only about 20% of incarcerated people — a small minority — are locked up for drug offenses. But the impact of the war on drugs can feel much larger. That's partly because police still make over 1 million drug arrests each year, only some of which lead to prison sentences. It's also because a lack of treatment and options often leads people to be incarcerated for drug-related crimes.

The complex connections between drugs and punishment don't end there. Below is some of our key research putting the war on drugs into perspective — and highlighting some of its worst policy failures:


Reports and campaigns

report thumbnailMass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2024

Our report and data visualizations break down where people in the U.S. are incarcerated and why, including how many people are held in different facilities for drug offenses.

report thumbnailBeyond the Count: A deep dive into state prison populations

Our analysis of rare survey date shows how mass incarceration has been used to warehouse people with marginalized identities and those struggling with poverty, substance use disorders, and housing insecurity, among other serious problems.

report thumbnailEnding driver's license suspensions for drug offenses unrelated to driving

A misguided policy from the War on Drugs suspends the driver's licenses of 175,000 people every year for drug offenses that do not involve driving. We're helping states repeal it.

report thumbnailCombating racially imbalanced "sentencing enhancement zones"

Increasing drug sentences in school zones is meant to protect children, but has worsened racial disparities in state prisons. We've published three reports about why these geography-based penalties are ineffective and harmful.


issue thumbnailPublic health

The war on drugs is the most famous — but far from the only — criminal justice policy failure impacting public health. Our research sheds light on the public health effects of mass incarceration.

issue thumbnailProbation and parole

What does the war on drugs have to do with probation and parole? Plenty — from unjust supervision terms imposed on people who commit drug offenses to people on supervision who are incarcerated for a failed drug test.

issue thumbnailWomen and gender

Incarcerated women are more likely to be locked up for drug offenses — and more likely to suffer from substance use disorders — than men. Read more about incarcerated women and the injustices they face.

Research Library

Didn't find what you were looking for? We also curate a database of virtually all the empirical criminal justice research available online. See the section of our Research Library on drug policy.

Stay Informed

Get the latest updates:

Share on 𝕏 Donate


Not near you?
Invite us to your city, college or organization.