The increasing size of world’s prison populations, especially in the United States, for the last three decades has triggered a lot of concern both for government and the society at large. However, most of the studies that have been done on the probable cause and possible solution to this alarming growth have pointed at drugs and fight against it as the major contributor. The American Bureau of Prisons has also released some mind-disturbing statistics and projections about this population. Such statics are likely jeopardize the security and general wellbeing of every American unless some adjustments are made, especially concerning the drug policies at the federal government level. 

The total “War against Drugs” have not only seen an increasing number of inmates imprisoned on the account of actual use of drugs,  but also other drug related offenses such as drug trafficking are making substantial percentage of these inmates. In order to gain deeper understanding of the relationship between drugs and the current prison population, one needs to look at different facets of this matter. Issues such as drug related offenses, commonly abused drugs, current trends of drug abuse and demographic representation of drug users are pertinent in this study.


Understanding the meaning and what constitutes the list of drugs is the first step towards the general understanding of drugs’ effects on the prison population. Generally, drug is defined as any none-food substance that has intoxicating, performance enhancing, medicinal, or other effects in the human or any animal’s body. Introduction of such substance into the body is known to cause some abnormal reactions into the body (NIDA, 2010). Even though some form of drugs, the medicinal drugs, are meant to reinforce the normal functioning of the body, improper administration of these drugs and other forms of drugs is considered abusive.

For the purpose of this paper, the term “drugs” is used to refer to those substances with intoxicating or any other effects, except those with medicinal effects. However, some clarifications will be made in the controversial cases such as the issues of medical marijuana. Additionally, it should be noted that what is considered to be a drug in one community, or culture, can be food to another community.

Hence, the law governing individual countries and international community serves the final role of defining and differentiating drugs from foods. In legal terms, those inmates held on drug accounts might have been high at the time of arrest, in possession of illegal drugs, had history of drug abuse, stole property to buy drugs, or shared some combination of the above cases (NCASACU, 1998).

Commonly Abused Drugs

The ever growing concern over drug abuse in every society have pushed several anti-drug organizations to come up long lists of commonly abused drugs in order to sensitize the society of their looming danger. In its highlight of the current society’s challenges, NIDA (2010) reported that the society is currently faced with the fact that drugs can be found almost everywhere and most members of the same society may be persuaded to believe that everyone is doing drugs.

Apart from the deliberate abuse of medicinal drugs, most members of the society are currently participating in the abuse of both hard and soft drugs. For teenagers and young adults, club drugs such as Rohypnol®, GHB, and ketamine are common. Generally, the commonly abused drugs include alcohol, cocaine, heroin, hashish, fentanyl, marijuana, opium, inhalants, ecstasy (MDMA), acid (LSD), methamphetamine,  amphetamine, steroids (anabolic), tobacco, phencyclidine, and the prescription drugs (NIDA, 2010).

According to the 2010 Monitoring the Future Study, which was funded by National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), young people are being increasingly introduced into drug abuse. The statistics showed that 0.5% of 8th graders, 0.6% among 10th graders, and 1.5% of 12th graders had been involved in Rohypnol abuse. From the same data, GHB had been abused by 0.6% 8th graders, 0.6% of 10th graders, and 1.4% of 12th graders while 1% of 8th graders, 1.1% of 10th graders, and in 2009 1.6% of 12th graders at least once a year had abused ketamine.

Drugs and Crime

Despite the fact that direct involvement in illicit drugs is a crime in itself, drugs also have indirect link to several other criminal activities. Drug addicts and drug dealers usually find themselves in compromising situations that force them into committing additional crimes. While referring to the existing scientific evidence, NCASACU (1998) suggested that the enforcement of drug laws contributes to other forms of crime such as gun violence and homicide. Indeed a keen look at the current investigations on bulk drug trafficking cases reveals that most culprits resort to kill their fellow smugglers who are likely to expose them. In this sense interdiction and imprisonment approach may also lead to vicious cycle of crimes.  

According to the United States’ Drug Interdiction Policy, trafficking of illicit drugs into the country is one of the major drug related offenses while corruption serves to seal the suspects from facing the law. As such, police officers are also found in this criminal circle. As highlighted by several reports, drug smugglers usually bribe the security officers to protect this illegal business (NCASACU, 1998). It is surprising to note that 200, 000 out of 1.4 million inmates incarcerated in drug related cases are just drug dealers who do not use the drugs.

NCASACU (1998) also reported that 21% of the inmates held for violent crimes were under the influence of alcohol at the time of the crime while three percent (3%) were under the influence of either powder or cracked cocaine. The same report estimated that active drug addicts commit property and violent crimes in the range of 89 to 191 cases every year. It is therefore paramount that drug issues should be holistically examined rather focusing on the number of inmates held for direct involvement in drugs.

Drugs and the Increasing Prison Population

Basically, the increasing number of the imprisoned drug offenders can be explained by the rising of  drug addicts. Given the worse economic conditions and the social problems that are in the rise today, lots of people are tempted to do drugs as a way of escaping from their unbearable reality while gaining the temporary excitement brought by these drugs. However, most of these people find themselves in the bondage of drug addiction after a couple of experimental use. Unfortunately, most these addicts are economically challenged. As result, they lead to adverse criminal activities responsible for their increasing imprisonment (NIDA, 2010).  

For further explanation, the FBI statistics in the GAO report highlighted how drug related offenses have driven the enlarging American prison population. According to the report, 1,841,182 people were arrested for drug abuse violation while 1,427,494 of the culprits were arrested for driving under the influence of drugs. On other cases 633,654 people were arrested for violating the liquor laws whereas 589,402 were held for drunkenness, and those who were arrested in account of disorderly conducts totaled to 709,105 culprits (GAO, 2012).

Even though the intensified drug control has seen the rate of drug trafficking into the United States declining, this War on drugs has been repeatedly cited as the force behind the increased number of incarcerated drug offenders since 1980. The bulk of cocaine seized in 2010 may have decreased from 732 tons that were seized in 2009 to 694 tons but the number of imprisoned petty drug offenders must have tripled in the same period (GAO, 2012).

By 2000, drug offenders accounted for 22% of the inmates in both federal and state prisons. In 2002, the percentage of inmates convicted of drug offenses increased to 24.7% from 22% in 1996. Most notable was the sharp increase in the percentage of jailed inmates who accounted for 12.1% of the total prison population from the 9.2% in 1996. However, the number of convicts held for drug possession decreased by 0.7% in the same period while convicts held for other drug related offenses increased by 0.5% from 1.3% in 1996 to 1.8% of the total inmates in 2002 (GAO, 2012). 

More recently, GAO reported that by last year (2011), drug offenders accounted for 48% of the federal prisoners. Comparatively, the average sentence length for these drug offenders has been increased 2.5 times longer than it used to be in the middle of 1989s, prior to the passing of the federal anti-drug legislation (GAO, 2012). This growing population has consequently increased the inmate-to-staff ratios.

Given the obvious impacts that anti-drug laws have made in the American prison population, GAO majorly focused on new drug sentencing laws and possible drop in drug related crimes as a way out of this problem. A lesson can also be learnt from others States such as New Jersey and New York which are today feeling a relief of a trimmed state prison population due to the dropping-off in the number offenders held for drug related crimes (NCASACU, 1998).

New York, in particular, reduced the size of its state prison population by lowering the minimum sentence allowable for some nonviolent drug felony offenders. Through this initiative, New York has managed to reduce the size of its total prison population from 71, 472 inmates in 1999 to 55, 090 inmates in 2011 (GAO, 2012). GAO reported that this decrease in New York’s custody population was a reflection of 2, 810 decline in the number of drug offenders from 10, 319 to 7, 509 inmates. These points out to the numeric effects that drug use have on the prison population.

Drugs and the Demographic Characteristics of the Prison Population

In addition to increase in the general population of inmates, the” War against Drug” policy has spiced-up the demographic characteristic of this population. To start with, NCASACU (1998) pointed out that this war has led to filling of the American prisons with young people since they are majority users and experimenters of different kinds of drugs.

Secondly, the international representation in the American prisons is attributed to drug-related offences. For instance, the bulk of cocaine and heroin being trafficked into the United States comes from Mexico. Hence, many of the international convicts held on account of cocaine and heroin smuggling are of Mexican origin. According to a report released by the United States Government, up to seven (7) out of ten (10) foreign inmates in the American prisons are Mexicans, and most of them were convicted of drug related crimes and drug trafficking (GAO, 2012).  Most glaring in the same report are the statistics showing a 7% increase in the number of foreign inmates in the federal prisons between years 2005 and 2010.   

The issues of the minority, the rich are also highlighted in the drug and prison population debate. While opposing a former drug law in New Jersey, that required a minimum of three-year prison sentence for individuals caught selling drugs within 1000 feet from a school compound, New Jersey legislators cited that law as having unfairly penalized a number of the minority residents of densely-populated urban areas. In such areas, “drug-free zones” covered the entire neighborhood (GAO, 2012). As such, most of the inmates who were convicted on the account of this law would have been residents of these densely-populated urban areas.  

Lastly and more importantly is the gender ratio. Even though women inmates account for only 7.7% of the total prison population, drug related crimes are currently causing their number to rise at twice the rate of their male counterparts (NCASACU, 1998). As such drugs and substance abuse continues to define the demographic characteristics of the American prison population.

Alternative Solution

Rational observation of the American correction system reveals that the increasing interdiction and imprisonment of drug offenders seems to bear little fruits in the fight against drug use. Conversely, it has worked against the correction system. Many of the American prisons are currently overburdened since the number of inmates is far beyond their recommended capacity. While addressing the issues of drug smuggling along American-Mexico border, NCASACU (1998) pointed out that the belief that interdiction sufficiently addressing drug trafficking was a misplaced one.  New avenues of combating drug abuse should, therefore, be established.

As recommended by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, treatment measures for drug users should be established and reinforced rather than imprisoning drug offenders who pose no harm to other citizens. The work that is being done by the American drug courts should be applauded and strengthened to relieve the government from spending in ineffective prisons and jails.


Even though drugs and substance abuse is one of the greatest threats facing the society today, bulk and unmerited imprisonment of minor drug offenders has failed to prove its effectiveness in dealing with this vice. However, the increased prison population that has come with it is a new thorn in the national economy and correction system. Effective and beneficial measures such as rehabilitation in drug courts should be encouraged, if the population explosion is to be mitigated. 

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