Women and the Drug War

More than 61% of women doing time in federal prison are behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses.

Women are now a fast growing segment of the U.S. prison population, largely because of draconian drug laws. More than 61% of women doing time in federal prison are behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses.

Women, and particularly women of color, are disproportionately affected by social stigma, by a plea bargaining system that punishes those unable or unwilling to inform on others, by regulations that bar people with a drug conviction from obtaining (or that require a drug test to receive) public assistance, and by a drug treatment system designed for men.

Women of Color

Black women are almost twice as likely – and Latinas are 20% more likely – to be incarcerated than white women. Native American women are incarcerated six times the rate of their white counterparts.

Drug use occurs at similar rates across racial and ethnic groups, but racialized women are far more likely to be criminalized for drug law violations than white women. Black people are no more likely than white people to use illicit drugs during pregnancy, but they are far more likely to be reported to child welfare services for drug use. Learn more about pregnancy and the drug war.


Roughly 60% of women in state and federal prisons are mothers of minor children, many of them sole caregivers. Removing a parent (perhaps the only parent) from a household is immediately destabilizing, and over the long-term, it’s devastating. Children with a parent in prison are several times more likely than other children to end up in foster care, to drop out of school and to become involved in the criminal legal system themselves.

Parents, once released from prison, may be barred from public assistance and housing and face significantly reduced employment opportunities. Even women who do not use drugs may be required to submit to invasive and embarrassing monitored drug testing in order to obtain public assistance.

Under the drug war logic that has infiltrated our child welfare system, any drug use is equivalent to child abuse, regardless of context and whether or not there is actual harm to the child. This has resulted in formalized policies that demonize parents, testing them for drugs (often without their consent), relentlessly investigating them, and routinely removing their children without any reason other than supposed drug use.

Half of all states and the District of Columbia require doctors to report any suspicion of drug use to child welfare authorities regardless of whether it's impacting the child.

Learn more about how the drug war breaks up families at UprootingTheDrugWar.org.

Women Charged with Conspiracy

Conspiracy charges represent one of the most egregious examples of the drug war’s inequitable treatment of women. Although conspiracy laws were designed to target high-level members of illicit drug organizations, they have swept up many women for being guilty of nothing more than living with or not cooperating as an informant against a partner or family member involved in some level of drug sales.

Harsh mandatory minimum sentencing may keep them behind bars for 20 years, 30 years, or life, even if they were never directly involved in drug sales or distribution.

Voices from the Front Lines of the Drug War: Susan Burton

Susan Burton is the founder and executive director of A New Way of Life, an organization that provides support and resources for women recently released from prison. After her son was killed by the Los Angeles Police Department, Susan medicated her grief with alcohol and drugs. Instead of receiving the support and services she needed, she cycled in and out of the criminal legal system for nearly fifteen years.

In 1998, Susan gained her freedom and sobriety and founded A New Way of Life Reentry Project, which has served over 800 women and is a national leader in the struggle to break the cycle of addiction and incarceration.

Our Priorities

The Drug Policy Alliance is working to reduce the devastating effects of the drug war on women, particularly women of color. We advocate for:

  • Safeguarding a person's right to sovereignty over their own body, including while they are pregnant
  • Access to Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) in jails and prisons, including during pregnancy
  • Increasing opportunities for families to remain together while parents (or children) address problematic drug use
  • Reforming draconian conspiracy laws that result in harsh prison sentences for many women