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
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.
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.
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.
- New data: Deaths in prison from drug and alcohol intoxication have grown dramatically since 2001, by Leah Wang and Wendy Sawyer, June 8, 2021
Drug and alcohol related deaths have increased by 611%.
- Since you asked: What role does drug enforcement play in the rising incarceration of women?, by Tiana Herring, November 10, 2020
Women are being jailed at higher rates than ever. We explore whether drug arrests and substance abuse could be having an impact.
- We know how to prevent opioid overdose deaths for people leaving prison. So why are prisons doing nothing?, by Maddy Troilo, December 7, 2018
Treatment programs offer promising results for recently incarcerated people, but prisons aren't using them.
- Progress: With reforms in Iowa and Utah, 12,000 fewer people will be denied driver's licenses every year, by Aleks Kajstura, August 29, 2018
Two more states have opted to help safe drivers get their lives back on track after drug convictions.
- DC ends driver's license suspensions for unrelated drug offenses, by Aleks Kajstura, March 23, 2018
D.C. will no longer suspend driver's licenses for drug offenses completely unrelated to driving, but 12 states still cling to failed law.
- BJS report: Drug abuse and addiction at the root of 21% of crimes, by Wendy Sawyer, June 28, 2017
Responding to substance use with punishment rather than care is one of our worst criminal justice policy failures.
- Seizing Chicago: Drug stings and asset forfeiture target the poor, by Alex Clark and Joshua Aiken, August 11, 2017
Instead of protecting Chicago's communities, state asset forfeiture practices and drug stings set up by federal agents target low-income, Black, and Latino residents, setting them up to fail.
- Have we gone too far myth busting criminal justice reform? Drug policy is still important, by Bernadette Rabuy, May 23, 2016
We didn't get mass incarceration from War on Drugs alone, but drugs play an important role in less discussed stages of criminal justice systems.
- Massachusetts removes major roadblock to re-entry: unnecessary license suspensions, by Alison Walsh, March 30, 2016
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed into law a bill to end license suspensions for people convicted of drug offenses unrelated to road safety, eliminating a major barrier toward successful re-entry.
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.
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.
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.
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.