The world’s drug policies are pretty sexist

Trapped in a man’s world.
Trapped in a man’s world.
Image: Reuters/Enrique Castro-Mendivil
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Women usually occupy the lowest rungs within drug-trafficking organizations, but that doesn’t mean they’re less likely to do jail time than their male bosses, according to a new public health study.

In much of the world, drug policies are set up to harshly punish drug crimes, even minor ones, says the report (pdf), the result of a collaboration between Johns Hopkins University and medical journal The Lancet. The low-level jobs that women usually take, such as drivers, couriers, and small-quantity smugglers, are punishable with long jail sentences in many countries.

Women generally have fewer resources than their male counterparts to get out of prison. Because of their low status within drug cartels, they seldom have inside information to offer prosecutors in exchange for lesser sentences. They also often lack legal representation. The result is that, worldwide, a bigger proportion of female inmates are jailed for drug offenses, than among male inmates, according to the study.

The report, which was published March 24 in The Lancet, comes as the United Nations General Assembly prepares for its first meeting on drug policy in nearly 20 years in April. Its last gathering, in 1998, was organized around the motto ”A drug-free world—We can do it!” a strategy that has been ineffective and led to excessive incarceration, the reports authors say.

In Latin America, where some governments have recently stepped up the fight against drug trafficking, the number of female inmates has nearly doubled, from 40,000 in 2006 to 74,000 in 2011. The main reason: Drug convictions, according to a 2015 report (pdf, pg. 6) by the Open Society Foundations. (The same group, which was founded by George Soros, also funded the Lancet/Johns Hopkins study.)

Yet, drug-treatment programs around the world, within and outside prisons, tend to be set up with men in mind, says Joanne Csete, an adjunct public health professor at Columbia University. They usually don’t take women’s psychology into account, she tells Quartz, or their need for special accommodations, such as being allowed to keep their kids with them.

“So much money is spent on policing, and interdiction, and jails, and so little on scaling up health services,” adds Csete, who co-authored the Lancet study.

The study recommends that governments decriminalize minor, non-violent drug crimes and provide more social services for women, so that they stay out of the drug trade in the first place.