Fifty years ago, President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy No. 1,” and Congress sought to expand treatment and research. At the same time, intensified enforcement launched the “War on Drugs.” Harsher penalties led to a 1,216% increase in the state prison population for drug offenses, from 19,000 to 250,000 between 1980 and 2008. Although prison populations have declined, the number incarcerated for drug offenses remains substantially larger than in 1980—more than 171,000 in 2019—and drug misuse and its harms have continued to grow, reports Pew Charitable Trusts.
Research has found no relationship between state drug imprisonment rates and drug use or drug overdose deaths and that, from 2009 to 2019, past-year illicit drug use increased from 15 percent of the population to nearly 21 percent and the overdose death rate more than tripled..
An analysis of data on illegal drugs found divergent enforcement trends—high rates of arrest but substantially reduced incarceration—coupled with a lack of treatment options and high mortality rates among people with illicit drug dependence.
Drug possession arrests have held steady at more than a million a year, in contrast with a large reduction in overall arrests, which dropped 29 percent.
Only one in 13 people who were arrested and had a drug dependency received treatment while in jail or prison.
Racial disparities in drug enforcement declined. Arrests of Blacks for drug offenses fell 37 percent, more than three times the drop among whites.
Numbers held in state prisons for drug offenses fell by about a third, accounting for 61 percent of the overall reduction in prison populations.
The decline in the number of Blacks incarcerated for drug offenses made up 26 percent of the decrease in prison admissions and 48 percent of the drop in the prison population.
Drug- and alcohol-related mortality rates increased fivefold in prisons and threefold in jails despite the decreases in the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses.
Pew says these trends indicate both an ongoing reliance on the criminal justice system to address drug misuse and that this strategy is costly and ineffective. Meaningful reductions in total drug arrests and drug-related deaths may not be achieved without shifting to a public health response that prioritizes evidence-based treatment approaches.