Incarceration plays an important role in the crime policies of every nation. Western democracies place an emphasis on enforcement as a form of controlling illicit drugs and their availability and use. This policy has increasingly resulted in the widespread and costly imprisonment of drug offenders. Yet it has seen little impact on the illegal drug market, raising questions regards imprisonment as an effective policy option.
World-wide, increasing numbers of people are being arrested and imprisoned for drug-related offences. The US is among the most enthusiastic supporters of the imprisonment of drug offenders. Many developed nations have endorsed US drug policy, yet few have out into action the heavy penalties it supports. For example, in the UK, only 9 percent of over 100,000 drug offenders were incarcerated in the year 2000 under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. Of those imprisoned, most served sentences of less than one year. In contrast, of the 1.5 million arrested for drug offenses in the US in 2008, 500,000 were incarcerated.
Nations such as Luxembourg and Portugal do not consider the possession of select drugs for personal use a crime. Other nations, such as the UK, employ methods to avoid the punishment of drug users when they are found in possession of illicit drugs in limited quantities. In Australia, there is a movement to decriminalize some drugs, while the Netherlands is renowned for having decriminalized cannabis in small quantities. Mandatory sentencing statues largely account for the upward trend in imprisonments in the US, with even those caught in possession of small amounts of illicit drugs facing a minimum prison sentence.
| Country | Percentage of Inmates as Drug Offenders |
| Australia | 10% |
| Canada | 14.4% |
| Netherlands | 18.9% |
| Portugal | 27.3% |
| UK (England and Wales) | 15.5% |
| UK (Northern Ireland) | 6.1% |
| UK (Scotland) | 14.4% |
| USA | 19% (federal prisoners), 53% (state prisoners) |
The US has the world’s second-highest imprisonment rate. Many of those incarcerated are detained for drug crimes. The US has seen the greatest rise globally in the number of people arrested for drug offenses, with drug arrests having tripled in the past 25 years.
The country’s campaign to reduce the illegal drug trade, collectively known as the War on Drugs, resulted in one-third of Americans arrested for drug offenses being imprisoned in 2008. One of the leading causes of arrest in the US is cannabis possession, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Around 250,000 annual arrests, or almost half of all drug arrests, are for cannabis possession.
Canada has moved away from US drug policy to a model more in line with the European harm-reduction model. Australia follows a mostly civic procedure for dealing with drug possession. Unlike in the US and the UK, most drug offenders in prison in Australia are there on charges of trafficking rather than for possession or use.
In many countries, drug policies have a disparate and often devastating effect on minorities. In the US, from 1986 to 2010, a minimum mandatory sentence of five years in federal prison had to be served by persons convicted of possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine. This differed from the penalty for possession of powder cocaine, for which an amount 100 times more than its crack counterpart carried the same sentence.
This difference had a major racially disparate impact on African-Americans, who primarily use crack cocaine. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 has since reduced the sentencing disparity between possession offenses for crack cocaine and powder cocaine.
Supporters of the imprisonment of drug offenders argue that incarceration prevents and reduces drug use through incapacitation, rehabilitation, and deterrence. Yet evidence suggests reducing illicit drug use through incapacitation, or the removing of the offender’s ability to commit further offenses through imprisonment, is ineffective. Supporting this are studies of US states with high rates of imprisonment of drug offenders. Research has found these states to have higher overall rates of drug use.
While the US is the world’s largest spender on drug prevention and treatment, funding for the treatment of drug users is significantly lower than funding for law enforcement related to drug control. In 2003, less than 30 percent of the total drug-control budget was spent on treatment.
Studies on imprisonment have found no difference in the likelihood of offenders re-offending among those who serve sentences in prison and those who serve in the community. Moreover, long sentences have been shown to increase the chances of an offender returning to crime. This evidence indicates imprisonment alone does not rehabilitate drug offenders.
The effectiveness of drug enforcement as a deterrent is also debatable. Studies have shown levels of illegal drug use to be unaffected by enforcement. Furthermore, the risk of imprisonment is not an effective deterrent to drug users according to most studies. Traditionally, high drug prices, which can be linked with the level of threat dealers face regarding incarceration, have been seen as a way to keep drug use down. While some studies support this notion, the majority fail to find any significant link between increased enforcement and an increase in drug prices. In fact, there is much research to support a reduction in the price of drugs such as cocaine and heroine despite increased incarceration.
The financial costs of the incarceration of drug offenders are high. The Office of National Drug Control Policy in the US has an annual budget of US$18 billion, half of which is spent on enforcement. Estimates suggest over US$12 billion was spent keeping drug offenders in prison in the US in 2006. Similar high costs are experienced across the border in Canada. The UK is proportionately one of the biggest global spenders on law enforcement, even surpassing the US. In 2008, it cost the UK government £37,500 a year to keep an individual in prison. There are also difficult-to-calculate collateral costs to consider, such as the impact that enforcement and prison funding has on society in general.
Current enforcement-orientated policies relating to the imprisonment of drug offenders in countries such as the US and those that make up the UK have come under criticism for a number of reasons. Opponents argue these policies are largely ineffective, unnecessary or a burden to taxpayers. Research indicates incarceration is an unsuccessful drug policy in reducing illicit drug use. Favoring punishment over prevention, on the basis that incarceration acts as a deterrent, a rehabilitator and an incapacitator, is progressively being seen as outdated. Increasingly, governments are being urged to identify and support alternative, more effective, and cheaper drug policies to deal with what many believe to be a public health issue rather than a criminal issue.