Women and the War on Drugs
Though men are often seen as the primary targets of the drug war, women have long been on the frontlines.
Women comprise one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. prison population. Two-thirds of women in federal prison are there for nonviolent drug offenses. Three quarters are mothers—many of them sole caregivers.
Pregnant women and mothers are uniquely vulnerable to criminal justice involvement. Conspiracy laws coupled with mandatory minimums have sentenced women to decades—or even life—in prison simply for living with a partner in the drug trade. Transgender women further face discrimination and abuse in the criminal justice system and recovery community due to biases about their gender (learn more in the November issue of the Monthly Mosaic).
Meanwhile, activist groups like SSDP boast strong female leadership, and the legal cannabis industry has more female executives per capita than all U.S. businesses as a whole.
“In the public mind, the ‘war on drugs’ probably conjures up a male image. In most countries, official statistics would show that men, indeed, are the majority of people who use drugs recreationally, who have problematic use, and who sell drugs. But punitive drug laws and policies pose a heavy burden on women and, in turn, on the children for whom women are often the principal caregivers.”
— The Impact of Drug Policy on Women, Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch & Olga Rychkova
Thanks to the drug war, women are one of the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. prison population, with the number of women in state and federal prisons growing by nearly 800% between 1978 and 2014. The U.S. houses almost 30% of the world’s incarcerated women despite being home to only 5% of the world’s female population. The 25 jurisdictions that have the highest global rates of female incarceration are all U.S. states. Roughly 59% of women in federal prison were incarcerated for drug offenses.
Not all these women are even guilty of what most people would consider an actual crime. Conspiracy offenses—sometimes referred to as wife and girlfriend laws—are perhaps one of the most egregious examples of the drug war’s inequitable treatment of women.
“Although conspiracy laws were designed to target members of illicit drug organizations, they have swept up many women for being guilty of nothing more than living with a husband or boyfriend involved in some level of drug sales. Harsh mandatory minimum sentencing may keep them behind bars for 20 years, 30 years, or even life.”
— Women and Gender in the Drug War, Drug Policy Alliance
Motherhood also puts women—particularly women of color—at increased risk of drug war prosecution. Even though black women are no more likely than white women to use illicit drugs during pregnancy, they are ten times as likely to be reported to child welfare services for drug use.
The prosecution of prenatal drug use by individual mothers and the drug testing of pregnant women work together to dissuade women from seeking prenatal health care for fear of prosecution or losing custody of their children.
“Pregnant women who are incarcerated for drug law violations often do not receive prenatal care. Children are routinely separated from their imprisoned mothers, causing irreparable damage to the child. Prisons and jails commonly use restraints (handcuffs and shackles) on women in labor and during delivery, regardless of their histories.”
— Women, Prison and the Drug War, Drug Policy Alliance
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, shackled birth interferes with normal labor and delivery, prevents or inhibits crucial mother-child bonding, and puts the health of the woman and fetus at risk.
“The same failed tactics used to fight drugs continue to be used to retain control over women’s reproduction. Drug laws are increasingly being implemented on the state level as a roundabout method to limit women’s bodily autonomy and carry out anti-choice agendas.”
— Using the “War on Drugs” to Arrest Pregnant Women, Annaick Miller
Organizations like the Family Law and Cannabis Alliance and the National Advocates for Pregnant Women are working to support women combating these punitive policies, but the news is not all sunny.
In 2014, Tennessee became the first state in the country to pass a law specifically making it a crime to use drugs while pregnant. Tennessee’s “fetal assault law,” which made the use of illicit drugs while pregnant a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison, could possibly expire in July, but the fight is far from over. In Indiana, for example, doctors are currently calling for all pregnant women to be drug tested.
However, while the drug war is responsible for innumerable collateral consequences, many of which disproportionately impact the lives of women, women’s role in both the licit and illicit drug world is not entirely one of powerlessness.
“Women are not only powerful actors in the drug world, but their work is central to the drug economy. Women routinely perform four core activities (e.g. providing housing and sustenance needs, purchasing drugs, subsidizing male dependency, and participating in drug sales) that are both fundamental to drug world organization and earn them important forms of capital that may facilitate future, conventional pursuits.”
— Dimensions of Women’s Power in the Illicit Drug Economy, Tammy Anderson, Ph.D.
Perhaps because of the huge impact the drug war has played in female lives, women have become some of the most powerful advocates of reforming harmful drug policies, with a growing network of organizations—such as the NORML Women’s Alliance, Mothers Against Misuse and Abuse, Moms for Marijuana, Women Grow, and more—tapping into this incredible energy to create change.
“Legalization advocates have found that female support tends to be a leading indicator for marijuana measures. In the case of both California’s 2010 and Colorado’s 2006 votes, sagging support among women preceded a collapse in men’s support too. In California, for instance, support from women saw a 14-point swing against legalization over the final six weeks, dragging support from men under 50 percent.”
Women aren’t just voting for change though; they’re actively putting their money behind their beliefs, with the burgeoning legal cannabis industry increasingly attracting female entrepreneurs.
“The cannabis industry hasn’t been very welcoming to women in the past, which is perhaps one reason for the historical dearth of females working at marijuana companies. But that appears to be changing quickly…Women now make up a sizable—and growing—portion of the executive ranks in the marijuana industry, including 63% of high-level positions at testing labs and nearly 50% of such roles at infused products and processing companies.”
But, though things are rapidly changing, the cannabis world is still in many ways a good ol’ boys’ club. In response to her experience at the 2014 Marijuana Business Conference in Las Vegas, Betty Aldworth, SSDP’s Executive Director started a conversation about #cannabias—sexism in the cannabis industry—that has taken off online.
“We’re over sexism & other isms at #mjbizcon, so we’re posting things people should be embarrassed to have said. Fuck your #cannabias.”
One thing’s for sure: while we’ve certainly come a long way, ladies (and allies!), there’s a long way still to go.
Do the SSDP DARE (and get 10 points on the SSDP Chapter Activity Tracker)!
Sign the UNGASS 2016 Women’s Declaration to call on policymakers to end the injustice perpetuated by global drug prohibition.
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Each month, SSDP’s Diversity, Awareness, Reflection and Education (DARE) committee publishes the Monthly Mosaic, a newsletter dedicated to exploring intersectionality and the War on Drugs. Previous newsletters have covered topics such as Privilege, Domestic Violence, Trans Awareness, and Black History Month.
The DARE committee strives to promote inclusivity within the SSDP network, and facilitate collaboration and engagement with presently underrepresented perspectives, individuals, and movements. In order to ensure that the Monthly Mosaic more intentionally and meaningfully reflects these values, the DARE committee is pleased to invite members of our student and alumni network to submit ideas for upcoming issues.