Increased Penalties for Drug Offenses have no Impact on National Drug Use

Saturday, August 29, 2015
(photo: Getty Images)

The United States’ effort to stem its drug problem by cracking down on users and sellers has failed to reduce drug use, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.


Data produced by Pew shows tougher sentencing laws for drug offenders, which began in the 1980s, helped balloon the federal prison systems’ population of drug-related criminals from 5,000 to more than 95,000.


This expansion of the prison population pushed the federal budget for this operation to $6.7 billion annually. But these expenditures on longer terms for drug offenders and other anti-drug strategies have not produced a lower level of drug use or made drugs more expensive to buy.


In fact, illegal drug use has increased, according to Pew. The percentage of Americans age 12 and older who said they used an illicit drug in 1990 was 6.7%. By 2012, the rate had gone up to 9.2%. Meanwhile, illegal drug prices have declined despite the multitude of drug busts by police over the past three decades that were intended to curb the supply of drugs.


“After adjusting for inflation, the estimated retail prices of cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine all decreased from 1981 to 2012, even as the purity of the drugs increased,” Pew reported.


Pew also found that few drug offenders receive probation instead of prison; about 26% of convicted offenders were given probation in 1980, compared to 6% in 2014. The length of prison sentences has also increased from an average 54.6 months in 1980 to 74.2 months in 2011. At the same time, the average length of sentences for other offenders fell by 3%.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Federal Drug Sentencing Laws Bring High Cost, Low Return (Pew Charitable Trusts)

Despite the Fact that less than 1% of Federal Drug Cases were Accompanied by Violence, Frantic Prosecutors Demand Retention of Mandatory Minimum Prison Terms (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Danny Biederman, AllGov)


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