Helpline information

Get Help Now

100% Confidential and free


24/7 Treatment Help

For immediate Treatment Help Call:

Recover with us - We're here to help. 24/7 Treatment Help:

Trusted content

The War on Drugs and Its Impact on Mass Incarceration in the United States


Published: June 5, 2024

The United States has been waging a “War on Drugs” for decades, which has led to a significant increase in the country’s prison population. 

Despite having only 5% of the world’s population, the US accounts for over 20% of the world’s prison population. 

This article will explore the driving force behind mass incarceration in the United States and its disproportionate impact on marginalized communities.

The Growth of Incarceration

Since 1970, the US prison population has increased by an astonishing 500%, with the country now spending over $80 billion on incarceration annually (ACLU). 

However, this figure likely underestimates the true cost, as it does not account for the financial burdens placed on the families of the incarcerated, such as the costs associated with making calls, paying for prison visits, and sending care packages (The Marshall Project).

The Role of Drug Offenses and Court-Imposed Costs

A significant portion of the growth in incarceration can be attributed to the inability of individuals to pay court-imposed costs, fines, and fees associated with misdemeanors and low-level drug offenses. 

The US Commission on Civil Rights reports that minoritized individuals are disproportionately impacted by these practices, leading to the loss of freedom, the splitting of families, and adverse mental health impacts on children.

Racial Disparities in Incarceration

Even in states like California, which have implemented measures to reduce prison populations, racial disparities persist. 

According to the California Budget Center, the Latinx population in California prisons is more than twice that of Whites, while the Black prison population is more than 1.5 times that of Whites.

Racial Disparities in California

According to the ACLU, nationally, Blacks are incarcerated for drug offenses at a rate 10 times greater than that of Whites, despite similar rates of drug use.

The National Institutes of Health also reports that Blacks are arrested at four times the rate of Whites for cannabis use, despite similar usage rates.

Furthermore, Hinton notes that Black men who have been convicted of drug offenses are more likely to be held in pretrial detention and receive harsher sentences than White men.


Incarceration has long been the primary response to drug-related crimes in the United States, with mandatory minimum sentencing being a key component of this approach.

However, numerous studies have shown that incarceration is largely ineffective in deterring drug use and addressing the underlying issues of addiction.

Lack of Deterrent Effects

Research conducted by the National Institutes of Health has repeatedly demonstrated that incarceration for drug-related crimes, including the use of mandatory minimum sentencing, has few, if any, deterrent effects.

Pew Research further supports this finding, revealing no statistically significant relationship between drug incarceration rates and three metrics of State-level drug use: individual drug use, drug overdose deaths, and drug arrests.

Increased Risk of Overdose

While incarceration fails to deter drug use, it has been shown to have a statistically significant relationship with an increased risk of overdose upon release (Binswanger et al.).

This highlights the inadequacy of the current approach in addressing the root causes of drug addiction.

Addiction as a Medical Condition

The National Institutes of Health emphasizes that drug addiction and/or abuse is not a criminal justice issue but rather “a medical condition—a treatable brain disorder—not a character flaw or a form of social deviance.” Despite this, approximately 3 million people with substance abuse disorders are locked up every year (Prison Policy).

Inadequate Treatment in Prisons

Due to low budgets, many incarcerated individuals with drug addictions do not receive the necessary treatment. Prison Policy reports that without adequate treatment, incarcerated individuals with substance disorders can become a threat to themselves and others during and post-incarceration.

This is evidenced by the fact that 15% of jail deaths in 2019 were due to overdose, up from 4% in 2000.

Reduced Funding for Substance Abuse Treatment

Despite the pressing need for effective substance abuse treatment programs in prisons, the California Governor proposes a net decrease of $28.6 million in 2022‑23 and $51 million in 2023‑24 for the Integrated Substance Use Disorder Treatment Program (ISUDTP) (LAO).

This reduction in funding further undermines the ability of the criminal justice system to address the needs of individuals with substance abuse disorders.

Promoting Rehabilitation and Reducing Recidivism

As the United States grapples with the consequences of its heavy reliance on incarceration for addressing drug-related crimes, it is becoming increasingly clear that alternative approaches are needed.

By examining the relationship between drug criminalization and incarceration rates, as well as the cost-effectiveness of rehabilitation programs, policymakers can develop more effective strategies for addressing substance abuse and reducing recidivism.

The Impact of Drug Criminalization on Incarceration Rates

The degree to which drug use is criminalized has a significant impact on arrest and prison populations across the United States. In states where drug possession is not criminalized (e.g., Oregon) or treated as a misdemeanor (e.g., California), the number of arrests per population is lower than in states where drug use is treated as a felony (e.g., Louisiana) (Drug Policy Alliance).

This disparity is evident in Louisiana, where the incarceration rate is more than double the U.S. average, with 1,094 people per 100,000 incarcerated, compared to 549 per 100,000 nationwide (Prison Policy LA and Prison Policy CA).

Incarceration Rates In Louisiana vs U.S Averages

The Cost-Effectiveness of Rehabilitation

Research consistently demonstrates the benefits of rehabilitating individuals struggling with substance abuse disorders instead of incarcerating them.

According to Ettner et al., for every dollar invested in substance abuse treatment, society saves up to $7 in healthcare and criminal justice costs. This highlights the cost-effectiveness of prioritizing rehabilitation over punishment.

Alternatives to Incarceration

Drug Courts

Drug courts offer non-violent drug offenders the opportunity to participate in court-supervised treatment programs instead of incarceration.

Participants are typically required to complete substance abuse treatment, counseling, and regular drug testing, to reduce recidivism and promote recovery.

The National Treatment Court Resource Center (NTCRC) reports that drug courts can reduce recidivism rates by up to 40%, saving the public as much as $6,744 per participant.

Community Policing Initiatives

Community policing initiatives involve law enforcement officers working closely with community members to address local issues, including drug-related crimes.

By fostering trust and collaboration, community policing can enhance public safety while promoting drug prevention and rehabilitation efforts.

A meta-analysis by Ekici et al. found that neighborhoods with active community policing programs experienced significant reductions in drug-related offenses compared to those without such initiatives.

Diversion Programs

Diversion programs divert individuals away from the criminal justice system and into community-based treatment programs.

These programs may include pretrial diversion, where individuals receive treatment instead of facing criminal charges, or post-conviction diversion, where individuals receive treatment as an alternative to incarceration.

The First Step Act, designed to reduce the disproportionate impact of drug laws on marginalized communities, has resulted in the release of 30,000 individuals from prison.

Among those released and diverted to rehab, 58% were convicted for drug trafficking, and only 13% have reoffended, compared to 57% of those released after a drug trafficking conviction and not diverted to rehab (The Sentencing Project).


The United States has long relied on punitive measures, primarily incarceration, to combat drug-related offenses. Law enforcement agencies have historically employed this approach to curb drug abuse and addiction. However, mounting evidence suggests that this strategy has not only proven to be costly but also largely ineffective in addressing the root causes of these issues.

The failure of the current approach to effectively tackle drug-related crimes necessitates a reevaluation of law enforcement’s strategies.

Portugal’s experience with decriminalization and emphasis on rehabilitating drug users instead of punishing them offers valuable insights for other countries grappling with similar challenges.

By prioritizing public health and harm reduction strategies, rather than punitive measures, Portugal has achieved better outcomes in terms of reduced drug-related harm, improved community well-being, and lower recidivism rates.

To effectively address the underlying issues fueling drug abuse and addiction, law enforcement agencies must shift their focus toward rehabilitation over incarceration. This can be achieved through the implementation of evidence-based strategies such as community policing, drug courts, and diversion programs.

New Areas of Focus

Community policing initiatives foster trust and collaboration between law enforcement and the communities they serve, enabling officers to better understand and address local drug-related issues.

Drug courts provide non-violent drug offenders with the opportunity to participate in court-supervised treatment programs as an alternative to incarceration, promoting recovery and reducing recidivism.

Diversion programs divert individuals away from the criminal justice system and into community-based treatment programs, addressing the root causes of drug-related crimes and providing individuals with the support and resources necessary for long-term recovery.

By embracing these alternative approaches, law enforcement agencies can create a more effective and humane criminal justice system that prioritizes the well-being of individuals and communities affected by drug-related crimes.

This shift in focus will not only foster healthier communities but also shape more effective drug enforcement policies that address the underlying issues fueling drug abuse and addiction.

© 2024 All Rights reserved.