The use of prison as a response to drugs has had a disproportionate negative impact on women. Many of these women have low levels of education, live in poverty, and are the primary caregivers of dependent persons—children, young people, the elderly, and the disabled.

Even though they bear the brunt of punitive policies, these women rarely pose a threat to society. Most are arrested for low-level yet high-risk tasks (small-scale drug distribution or transporting drugs); they become involved to overcome poverty, or at times due to coercion by a partner or relative. Their incarceration contributes little if anything to dismantling illegal drug markets or improving public security. To the contrary, prison tends to worsen the situation, further limiting their chances of finding decent and legal employment when released from prison, thus perpetuating a vicious cycle of poverty, involvement in drug markets, and incarceration.

The incarceration of women—caregivers in particular—can have devastating consequences for their families and communities. In the absence of strong social protection networks, their dependents are exposed to situations of abandonment and marginality. Indeed, the women’s incarceration may, paradoxically, increase the likelihood of persons in their care consuming drugs or becoming involved in illegal trafficking networks. This, in turn, increases the demand on governments to provide social services, an area that is often neglected.

It is time to acknowledge that current drug policies have resulted in the excessive criminalization and incarceration of women. These policies must be reviewed in order to reduce the female prison population. Drug policies should be developed based on the fundamental legal principle that incarceration should only be used as a last resort. Fundamental drug law reforms are needed throughout the region, so that low-level offenses committed by women or men can be addressed by alternatives to incarceration and by ensuring that the penalties are proportional to the offenses committed.

In addition, special attention should be given to the gender perspective in developing, implementing, and evaluating legislative and drug policy reforms. Criminal justice systems should be capable of taking attenuating circumstances into account, for example in the case of women who have dependents in their care, or pregnant women. In no case should women who are accused or convicted of non-violent drug crimes go to jail; instead alternatives to incarceration should be implemented. Indeed, alternatives to incarceration are less costly and less harmful responses, and more effective for addressing drug-related offenses.

WOLA, the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), Dejusticia, and the OAS Inter-American Commission of Women are seeking to address the issue of women incarcerated for drug crimes. The sponsoring organizations have convened an international working group of government officials, lawyers, and researchers on women’s and drug policy issues, to advance policies that protect the rights of this vulnerable group and end the unjust criminalization of non-violent drug offenders.

Meet the Working Group

Learn about the Working Group members here.

To get in contact with the Working Group, please contact WOLA Program Associate Teresa Garcia Castro at