The War on Drugs is War on Women and Families

Men comprise the majority of drug abusers in the United States as well as the majority of federal prisoners. However, recent drug use and incarceration trends indicate that this may not always be the case. Women are the fastest-growing subset of the federal prison population in the United States. In addition, girls under the age of 15 are now more likely to use illegal drugs than boys of the same age.

There is increasing evidence to show that the “War on Drugs” that began in the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan has been ineffective. In addition, some individuals and groups have come forward with the opinion that it has actually been detrimental to society. In many ways, the impact of the war on drugs on women has been devastating.

Women in Prison

Two-thirds of the women under incarceration in federal prisons have been convicted of non-violent drug related offenses. Three quarters of the women in prison are mothers. This means that a large number of mothers—the majority of whom are the primary caregivers for their children—are serving time for non-violent drug related crimes.

Loss of One or More Parents to Prison

Because women are more likely than men to be single parents, and more likely to have the dominant role in parenting, incarcerating women for non-violent drug crimes is more likely to have far-reaching consequences–affecting children, extended family members and others involved in the process of rearing children.

In the role of primary caregiver to a child or children, women are also negatively impacted when their husband, boyfriend, or other co-parent is sent to prison. In addition to the loss of financial and/or emotional support, mothers in this position must care for children who are often negatively affected by the loss of a parent. Children who lose one or two parents to the prison system are more likely to wind up in foster care, drop out of school and end up in prison themselves.

The Wide Net of Conspiracy Laws

Some opponents of the war on drugs point to harsh conspiracy laws as one way in which women have been unfairly victimized by disproportionately harsh sentences. Conspiracy laws were designed to punish members of drug manufacturing and drug trafficking organizations, even when those individuals were not involved in the directly handling of drugs, transporting, or otherwise possessing them.

Many women have been prosecuted under these laws because they lived under the same roof as a husband or a boyfriend who was involved in drug trafficking. Conspiracy offenses often come with minimum sentences of up to 20 or 30 years in prison. Opponents of these sentences argue that they are not serving the purpose for which these laws were intended. For families with children, the result of such sentences is often to deprive the children of both their caregivers simultaneously.

Prosecution of Pregnant Women

The war on drugs has also seen efforts aimed at reducing the number of women who engage in drug use during pregnancy, endangering both themselves and their fetuses. However, this has frequently meant the criminal prosecution of pregnant women with drug addictions, resulting in incarceration rather than medical care. This can make it more difficult for pregnant women to receive proper treatment for their addiction and proper prenatal care for their unborn child.

By prosecuting pregnant women as felons, the current system also makes it more difficult for these women to serve as parents following the birth of their children. Criminal records make it more difficult for the new mothers to secure jobs, federal food or housing assistance and other opportunities to help them get back on their feet.

Some pregnant women who abuse drugs are prosecuted for severe crimes that result in the loss of parenting privileges altogether. Pregnant drug addicts have been prosecuted for child endangerment, child abuse, assault, and even homicide if their drug use was believed to have resulted in a miscarriage or in fatal health complications. The dangers of drug use during pregnancy are indisputable, but advocates who correctly identify drug addiction as a mental illness contend that treatment is more appropriate, cost effective and beneficial to women and children than prosecution.