Five ways the war on drugs is waged against women
A woman smokes marijuana during a rally in front of the Supreme Court of Justice in Mexico City on Nov. 4, 2015. (Photo by Alfredo Estrella for Agence France-Presse.)

This article was originally published by The Influence, a news site that covers the full spectrum of human relationships with drugs. Follow The Influence on Facebook or Twitter.


The drug war has no shortage of casualties of all shapes and sizes—not excluding toddlers. But in honor of International Women’s Day we’ve listed just a few of the ways the violence, stigma and fear associated with the War on Drugs harms women in particular.

1. Violence

Drug consumption in the United States fuels violent cartels south of the border, and women are increasingly victims of the bloodshed. Since 2012, killings of women in Mexico have increased by well over 300 percent, and towns most affected by the brutal trend face devastating loss; in one year in cartel-controlled Guerrero, Mexico, 600 women were “vanished” or murdered, and more than 1,000 were raped. In addition to selling drugs, cartels also traffic humans, including women who are routinely sexually abused.

2. Stigma

Gender-based stereotypes drive additional stigma around drug use for women, and this heightened judgement can have a negative impact on their access to services and support. According to the 2013 SAMSHA National Survey of Substance Abuse Treatment Services (N-SSATS), only 17 percent of rehabilitation facilities treat pregnant or postpartum women. A 2014 report in the Lancet found that stigma was physically harming women in Georgia, “as deep-rooted conservative attitudes towards women’s roles in society stop them seeking, and receiving, help for their addictions.” The result was a lack of access to cutting “potentially life-saving services.”

3. Jail

Women—and black and latina women in particular—are the fastest growing demographic behind bars, and most of them are locked up for drug crimes. According to a fact sheet from the Drug Policy Alliance, between 1978 and 2014, the number of women in prison increased by upwards of 800 percent, and in 2014, a higher percentage of women (60%) were locked up on federal drug offenses than men (50%). Women are also more susceptible to civil punishments for drug use than men. Even in states where marijuana is legal, smoking it during pregnancy can threaten a mother’s custody of her child.

4. Motherhood attacked

Disturbingly, laws that target pregnant women for drugs are on the rise. Tennessee provides one such example. The state is currently weighing legislation that would permanently extend a fetal assault law passed in 2014. The law, reportedly designed to address the state’s high rates of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, allows prosecutors to go after women whose babies test positive for opioids. At the time of its passage, supporters called it a “velvet hammer” that would gently prod women into seeking treatment (despite the shortage of facilities in the state that work with pregnant women).

Two years later, women’s rights advocates say it’s largely succeeded in scaring women away from essential pre-natal care and throwing young mothers in jail. Rates of neonatal abstinence syndrome in Tennessee have not gone down. Nevertheless, proponents of the legislation are pushing for its permanent extension. The Bill is currently in the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee.

5. Rape

In early March, a former Pennsylvania police officer was charged with sexual assault for threatening women nabbed for drug crimes with jail time unless they had sex with him (including a minor). Just the month before, a teenaged woman working as a drug informant accused two LAPD cops of forcing her to perform oral sex on them. Daniel Hoytzclaw notoriously used drug stops as a pretext to abuse his victims.

In November, a year-long AP investigation found that over a six-month period, 1,000 officers lost their badges because of sexual assault. Although not all of these cases were related to drugs, drug laws make women vulnerable to assault, both because they give an excuse for a stop in the first place and because drug use is seen as undermining the testimony of victims.

There’s also the officially sanctioned form of assault: cavity searches. “They sexually assaulted, raped me and molested me,” said a Texas woman who was held down by two officers and subjected to a cavity search after officers allegedly smelled marijuana in her car.

This article was originally published by The Influence, a news site that covers the full spectrum of human relationships with drugs. Follow The Influence on Facebook or Twitter.