Drug Law Convictions and Punishments

Incarcerating people for nonviolent drug offenses destroys lives, because with a criminal conviction under your belt, it isn’t easy to get a job, and you’re not eligible for student loans, which doesn’t leave a lot of legal options open for a productive life. Even if someone was never incarcerated, the “criminal” or “felon” label can follow a person convicted of a drug law violation for this rest of his or her life.

A drug arrest (let alone conviction) may result in even a legal resident’s deportation. Policies that exclude and discriminate against people with a conviction are so numerous and varied that they have effectively created a permanent second-class status for millions of Americans. Often the only difference between a person with a drug law conviction and one without is that the former was unlucky enough to have been caught doing what half of American adults openly admit to having done: trying an illicit substance. Given the systemic racism inherent in the drug war, these life-long exclusions inequitably affect individuals and communities of color.

Punishment for a drug law violation is not only meted out by the criminal justice system, but is perpetuated by policies denying child custody, voting rights, employment, business loans, trade licensing, student aid and even public housing and other public assistance. Criminal records are also cited as reason to deport immigrants and bar other noncitizens from visiting the United States. These barriers, like drug war enforcement itself, fall disproportionately on individuals and communities of color. Relative to the crime being committed, the punishments for drug law violations are unjustifiably harsh and cause more harm than the drug itself. 

Voices From the Front Lines

The Drug Policy Alliance works to end the drug war by partnering with organizations like The Ordinary People Society (T.O.P.S.). Pastor Kenneth Glasgow is founder and president of T.O.P.S., a faith-based organization in Dothan, Alabama that provides programs and services to people and their families that have been impacted by incarceration, drug addiction, poverty and homelessness. 

Our Priorities

The Drug Policy Alliance is working to advance a national dialogue on the harms of stigmatizing arrested, convicted and formerly incarcerated people. We actively oppose policies that exclude people with a record of arrest or conviction from key rights and opportunities. These include barriers to voting, public housing and other public assistance, employment, receiving a small business loan, and disadvantage in child custody and adoption decisions.

Drug Law Convictions and Punishments