Briefing paper: Incarceration of Drug Offenders: Costs and Impacts

Most governments make strong statements about the need to maintain, and often increase, police activity and penal sanctions for drug users. This is based on the idea that strong enforcement, and widespread incarceration, will deter potential users and dealers from becoming involved in the illegal drug market. In fact, very few countries actually follow through on the rhetoric – arrest and incarceration rates for drug users are relatively low in most countries in relation to the total number of users, and the often quoted maximum sentences are rarely, if ever, used. The one country that has consciously used large-scale incarceration as a drug prevention measure is the United States, where approximately 500,000 drug law offenders are currently in prison. Evidence from their experience over the last 20 years shows that, while some marginal impacts on drug prices and prevalence rates can be attributed to this policy, it has failed to fundamentally alter the scale and nature of the illegal drug market. In addition, there are significant financial, social and health costs associated with high rates of incarceration, which perhaps explains why most countries have not gone down this road.