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 women are no more likely than white women to use illicit drugs during pregnancy, but they are far more likely to be reported to child welfare services for drug use.


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 justice 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.

Pregnant Women

Pregnant women are uniquely vulnerable to criminal justice or child welfare involvement especially if they have admitted to drug use or have had a positive drug test at birth. Prosecutors across the country have targeted pregnant women accused of drug use, supposedly in the interest of protecting their fetuses.

The criminalization of pregnant women is not only an affront to women’s rights, but it puts both mother and fetus at greater risk by creating barriers to child custody, drug treatment and prenatal care.

Prisons and jails commonly use restraints (handcuffs and shackles) on women in labor and during delivery, putting the mental and physical well-being of the woman and fetus at risk. Many prisons and jails also deny new mothers the right to breastfeed or express milk for their babies, stripping them of the choice in how to feed their own children, as well as the medical benefits of breastfeeding for both mother and child.

Medical professionals recommend that women who have been receiving Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) during pregnancy for problematic substance use should continue that treatment after birth in order to prevent relapse. But some prisons and jails deny them this continued treatment, forcing them to go through rapid, painful withdrawal while they are recovering from childbirth and greatly increasing the chances of relapse after their release.

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 justice 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 woman’s right to sovereignty over her own body, including while she is 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