War On Drugs, War On Women

War On Drugs, War On Women

by Maia Szalavitz

“Female addicts are seen as doubly deviant. A drunk man is one thing, but a drunken woman is considered disgusting”

When President Clinton announced this year that he would spend $1 billion on anti-drug advertising, not everyone saw it as occasion for celebration. Buoyed by the Presidents earlier promises that he would shift spending from its long-standing emphasis on enforcement and interdiction to prevention and treatment, experts in the field of addiction had expected something better.

Though there are several proven techniques for preventing substance-abuse problems, ad campaigns are not among them. “I had hoped that President Clinton would have put more money into treatment and research on the causes of addiction,” says one expert in the field,Joseph Volpicelli, M.D., a senior scientist at the Treatment Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

The Presidents failure to make any significant change was disappointing, but not surprising. Historically, the American response to drug problems has been to ignore the facts and to support strategies that “send a message” to voters rather than approaches that actually save lives. Nowhere does this become more apparent than in the effect of the drug war on women.

Since 1972, when President Nixon named drugs “public enemy number one” and declared all-out war, America has been fighting a losing battle. A survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a government mental-health agency in Rockville, Maryland, finds that although there was a drop in casual drug use of around 50% between its peak in 1979 and its low point in the early 1990s, it is on the rise again, while the number of addicts has remained at pretty much the same high level throughout. There are presently around 5 million Americans who have serious problems with severe drugs. Approximately one third of them, according to SAMHSA, are women.

In the drug war, women’s concerns have historically been ignored, dismissed, or exploited. In the late 19th century, for example, one of America’s first “drug panics” occurred when cocaine and heroin (and the opium from which heroin is derived), which were obtainable without a prescription, found their way into numerous patent medicines. Women in particular were seen as gullible victims of unscrupulous patent-medicine salesmen. The fear that people would overdose on these so-called remedies was a sensible reaction to the unregulated elixirs. Far less sensible – and less tolerable to society – was the conviction that mothers and wives were being diverted from their responsibilities at home by their drug induced stupors. Indeed, it was “opium inebriety” among women that lead to the push for the labeling of drugs and passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.

“Female addicts are [seen as] doubly deviant,” explains Sheigla Murphy, Ph.D., director of the Center for Substance Abuse Studies at the Institute for Scientific Analysis, a California think tank. “A drunk man is one thing, but a drunken woman is [considered] disgusting.” Murphy theorizes that the traditional expectation that a woman will take care of her husband and children and make the care of others her priority is upset by a woman doing something as selfish as using a substance for her own pleasure. “It really rocks the boat,” she says, adding that this is one reason why our response to addicted women tends to be even more punitive than our admittedly harsh treatment of male addicts.

The complete outlawing of cocaine and heroin wasn’t accomplished on the basis of ethical concerns alone, however. Racism was called into play early on. Popular literature of the time shows that racist propaganda, which played on white men’s insecurities about their own power, flourished at the end of the 19th century. Among other things, the notion that using cocaine would heighten the desire of black men to rape white women was widely proclaimed. The same was held to be true with regard to the use of opium by Chinese men. Fears of “hopped up Negroes” and “opium smoking Chinamen” fueled anti-drug sentiment, especially in the South and West. Despite the fact that, at the time, the majority of addicts were actually those white housewives hooked on patent medicines, the alleged threat to “our women,” viewed as poor innocents, was used to heighten moral outrage over intoxication. As a consequence, several states moved to ban the substances.

The federal government, further motivated by the understanding that a ban on opium smoking would improve U.S. relations with China, where opium was a symbol of unwanted foreign influence, followed the states’ lead and criminalized recreational drug use in 1914. Making medical use the only legitimate use of opiates and cocaine also settled a long-running turf war between doctors and pharmacists over who should control the lucrative drug business.


Profitable as the drug trade may be to some, women are rarely among the beneficiaries. Serena Nunn, 28, is serving 14 years for her involvement in her boyfriend’s multimillion-dollar cocaine business. Serena’s role was little more than secretarial: She drove her boyfriend to the sites of drug deals and confirmed details on the phone. The government has tapes of her threatening a witness, but there is no evidence that she engaged in violence.

A senior partner in the same business, however, a man who made millions from the operation and had been previously convicted of manslaughter and rape, received a sentence only half as long as Serena’s – -just seven years. His sentence was reduced because he helped convict his own partner – Serena’s boyfriend. Serena’s refusal to testify against her boyfriend, even when his family suggested that she do so to help herself, cost her dearly. And her case is typical.

Women often incur long sentences precisely because they refuse, or are unable, to give prosecutors evidence about their husband’s or boyfriends crimes and connections. Indeed, a 1997 review of over 60,000 federal drug cases by the Minneapolis Star Tribune shows that men are more likely to sell out their women to get a shorter sentence than vice versa.

Two-thirds of the $15 billion a year the federal government spends on the drug war is devoted to such “supply-reduction” efforts as policing and imprisonment. States devote another $15 billion to drug law enforcement and incarceration. The people, mostly men, who sell drugs in quantity and direct smuggling operations, are usually well-informed about the penalties they face, and are quick to implicate others in order to reduce their own sentences.They also tend to have information to trade. Those who aren’t heavily involved are either unwilling to be disloyal, or, as minor characters in the business, they lack information useful to prosecutors. Plea bargains go to the big players, who “have something to trade”; the little fish, with nothing to put on the table, get the tough sentences. Such tactics have the effect of switching sentencing judgments from the judge to the prosecutor. They also enable hardened criminals to be back on the streets and dealing again much more quickly.

The average first-time, non-violent drug-sales offender (such as Serena) sentenced in the federal system receives a 10year jail term, more than twice as long as sentences given the average rapist, and just 18% shorter than the typical manslaughter sentence. The U.S. Sentencing Commission reported to Congress that more than half of all incarcerated federal drug offenders were either street-level salespeople or “mules” (people hired to smuggle drugs); only 11% could be considered to be “kingpins.”

Suzan Penkwitz, the San Diego mother of a two-year-old son, had never even seen heroin until she was arrested when returning to the U.S. from Mexico. Her friend Jenny had asked her to go along on a drive south of the border avowedly to help Jenny get her mind off a recent break-up with her boyfriend. Suzan did what she thought a good friend should do. She had no idea that Jenny was really going to Mexico to pick up 43 pounds of heroin. “I never imagined myself going to prison. Never ever!” says Suzan, who is serving a six-and-a-half-year sentence at the Federal Prison Camp for women in Dublin, California.

Because of the way the system works, Jenny, who admitted her involvement and agreed to testify against Suzan, got out after serving only six months. “Out of the 300 women here, I’d say 80 percent have stories similar to mine,” Suzan says. “First-time, non-violent, low-level drug offenders. I’ve met women who got five years for what the Feds call ‘improper use of the telephone’: answering the phone for what later turned out to be a drug sale. Not being involved, mind you, but just answering [their own] phone. And of course, the snitches that helped put them here all get off with little or no time. I don’t think I’ve met any high-level drug dealers here. All these women had boyfriends, or husbands, or acquaintances who used them and then let them hang. It’s amazing. My roommates are 48, 50, and 58 years old. Sweet, talented ladies. Grandmas, doing 14 years for ‘drug conspiracy’ It all seems so pointless and tragic.”


Suzan, who didn’t have anyone to testify against because she was unaware of the plot, was seen as “uncooperative,” and therefore subject to harsh federal sentencing guidelines.The severe penalties for possession or sale of large quantities of drugs, which are mandatory for those without the ability to plea bargain, are the main reason American prisons are full beyond capacity, according to Justice Department statistics. They account for why we imprison a much larger percent of our population than do other Western democracies.

As a result of the introduction of mandatory sentencing to the federal drug law in the mid 1980s, and its adoption by many states at about the same time, the number of women in prison has risen 400% since 1986, according to a recent Department of Justice report, “Survey of State Prison Inmates”; for black women, the figure is 800%. Other statistics from that survey tend to support Suzan’s contention: More than two thirds of women are in prison for committing non-violent crimes. Justice Department figures further show that a similar percentage have young children, only one quarter of whom are in the custody of their fathers. The rest are with various extended-family members or friends, or in foster care.

What’s even more distressing is that long before these draconian sentences were introduced, there was good evidence that they would not cut drug-related crime or drug use. New York state was among the first to try mandatory sentencing for drug offenders, instituting the notorious “Rockefeller drug laws” in 1973. Under these laws, anyone possessing over four ounces of cocaine or heroin – even a first-time offender – is subject to a mandatory 15-years-to-life sentence.

Still on the books, the Rockefeller laws were in place even as New York became the epicenter for the crack cocaine epidemic. Crack cannot be manufactured without cocaine – so it wasn’t that the penalties didn’t apply to the new drug. Had those laws been effective deterrents, one would have expected the crack plague to have been less intense in New York State than in states that had less severe punishments for drug crimes. In fact, the opposite was true.

According to the Bureau of Justice, crack spurred a rise in violent crime in the mid-to-late 1980s to rates that have not been seen before or since. While crack isn’t especially criminogenic – alcohol, in fact, is more closely associated with violent behavior – a confluence of factors such as recession, high unemployment in the inner city, and the introduction of a new product by multiple, independent, gun-carrying crime groups caused the spike in the crime rate.

And none of this was stopped by the Rockefeller laws.


A recent study by the Drug Policy Research Center of the California-based RAND Corporation found that every $1 million spent on imposing lengthy, mandatory sentences on drug dealers would prevent consumption of just 12 kilos of cocaine. Using shorter, traditional sentences and locking up a greater number of dealers for shorter periods would reduce consumption by over twice as much. And using the same amount of money to treat drug addicts would cut use by over 100 kilos. Yet, despite these findings, spending is continually increased for prison, and reduced for treatment.

The insanity of our spending priorities has devastating effects on women. Gloria St. James, for example, was heavily involved in drugs and crime in her South Bronx neighborhood from the age of 16. Fifteen years later, by the time she recovered from heroin and cocaine addiction, she’d been arrested 66 times and had served numerous short sentences for petty theft, syringe possession, and embezzlement.

Though it was clear that her crimes were related to her drug use, she was never once offered drug treatment; instead, prison constantly introduced her to new ways of using drugs and committing crimes. “When I went to jail, I learned how to pick pockets,” she says. “Then … I learned how to forge checks.”

Like Gloria, more than 80% of inmates never get drug treatment while incarcerated, according to a recent report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, a research center at Columbia University in New York. Not until after her 66th arrest, when a Christian outreach group visited the prison, did Gloria see there might be a way for her to break free of her addiction. “There was a woman [from the outreach group] who said that she had had a life like mine,” Gloria explains. “I couldn’t believe it because she looked so good. What she said Jesus did for her, that’s what I held onto.” The program was neither paid for nor run by the prison.

What’s more, when women are able to seek help for drug problems, they rarely get what they need. “At a structural level, most existing drug treatment centers are abusive to women.They are not set up to deal with women’s experiences,” says Sheigla Murphy, who has studied the issue for decades. Many centers, particularly the long-term residential programs called “therapeutic communities,” were developed to break down the tough street identity of male addicts. The treatment techniques in these facilities tend to replicate the abuse which often traumatized young girls (and many boys) into becoming addicts in the first place. (According to NIDA, more than half the women in treatment centers have been abused before they get to the center.)

Before its “methods” were exposed, one such center was praised by Nancy Reagan and George Bush, and described by a former head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse as “one of the best programs of its kind in the country.” Moll (not her real name), who grew up in an upper middle-class home, recounts her experience at the facility, which is still in operation: “As soon as you woke up, you were immediately confronted with your past. ‘What are you lying about today?’ they would ask. If you talked back or didn’t do what they said, they would respond with what they called ‘restraint.’ They would throw you to the floor; someone would be holding your arms and legs.”At the same time, Moll says, someone else would cover her mouth and nostrils so she couldn’t breathe.

While boys were subject to the same rough treatment, there was special sexual humiliation reserved for the girls. Julia (not her real name), another patient in “treatment” with Moll, says, “Guys didn’t have to talk about losing their virginity in front of the whole group, but girls did. I had to relive that incident in front of 150 people. And the guys said, ‘You know how I used to feel about girls like you – you were sick and disgusting sluts.'”

“You couldn’t talk to anyone other than your counselor,” Moll explains. “[Doing] that was ‘breaking chain of command,’ and you could be punished with restraint. There was no ombudsman or patient complaint procedure – hell no. No one’s required to take your side.”

Because the parents of such young people don’t know much about treatment, and sources of information conflict, they are easy prey. Tell parents that their child will die if they don’t get him or her into a treatment center, and show them a positive profile of your facility written up in a leading newspaper – how are they to know what to think? The rhetoric of the drug war is “by any means necessary,” and it sets up parents and kids to be victimized by greedy providers who tell them, as Moll said her parents were told, that “any drug use is abnormal and requires hospitalization.” Moll claims that her entire drug use consisted of smoking marijuana “maybe 20 times” – a “drug problem” that in fact does not meet the standards for in-patient treatment, as denned by the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), a specialty group affiliated with the American Medical Association. If she had been evaluated by a reputable treatment provider, she would have been given out-patient counseling, according to ASAM. Instead, she spent three years in a center where she was subjected to 18 hours a day of confrontational “therapy.”

Another way in which treatment centers fail women is that most of them have no provision for dealing with the children of their patients. Says Sheigla Murphy: “My opinion is that all of today’s treatment is predicated on male ways of viewing the world. For one, without facilities for children, you are effectively excluding women with young children. Also, those who have lost their children need to be helped to prepare for when they will get them back. And most treatment doesn’t deal with post-traumatic stress disorder or with the longterm mental health care needs of addicted women, who’ve commonly experienced molestation, rape, and other violent traumas.” In a recent study, Murphy found that 75% of women who used drugs while pregnant, for example, had long histories of significant victimization. Murphy adds: “If you put women in a confrontational situation in a mixed gender group, as is done often, they will drop out or they will get even further damaged by the experience. We wrote about this in the seventies, yet with some notable exceptions, [the situation is] still the same.”


One of the newcomers to the war against drugs is the anti-abortion movement, which has found in drug-using women a target for its campaign to end choice. Pictures of tiny, sickly “crack babies” provide powerful visual support for anti-woman oratory; the defenders of mothers whose drug use endangers their babies are few and far between. Laws recently passed in some states that criminalize the use of drugs by pregnant women reflect this attitude. Such legislation may open the door to broader definitions of fetuses as legal “persons.”

It is apparent that measures enacted to “crack down” on women who use drugs while pregnant often serve racist and sexist agendas; they are also counter-productive. A recent study funded by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, New Jersey, which finances research on health policy, found that laws that seek to punish the mothers of babies who test positive for drugs tend to keep many from getting help with their addiction. “They drive women underground and they avoid prenatal care,” said one of the study’s authors, Lawrence Nelson, a bioethicist and lecturer in philosophy at Santa Clara University. But prenatal care is the one thing known to reduce harm to these babies. “There are already penalties for drug use and these women have ignored them,” Nelson says. “Why is adding one more going to make a difference?”

“Drug mother” laws reinforce racist stereotypes. In Wisconsin, for example, what legislators dubbed the “crack mother” law was passed after an unidentified black woman called “Angela” tested positive for cocaine use during two separate pregnancies. According to the Congressional Black Caucus, by using the term “crack mother law,” legislators evoke images of poor, typically black, welfare queens having dozens of illegitimate children – even though the law also covers alcohol, powder cocaine, and other drugs more often used by whites.

People think that such mothers “don’t deserve to reproduce,” says Lawrence Nelson. His study found that in South Carolina, 40 out of 41 women arrested on charges of delivering drugs to their fetuses were black, even though the majority of pregnant drug users are white. Nationally, according to Nelson, of the 240 women prosecuted in 35 states for these offenses, 70-80% were minorities.

In South Dakota, a woman who is found to be using drugs or drinking heavily during pregnancy can be held in a treatment center for her entire pregnancy. A 1998 Wisconsin law allows women in the third trimester of pregnancy to be confined until they give birth. Similar bills have been introduced in 13 other states.

Nelson says that while anti-choice conservatives have tended to support these laws, they may actually increase the incidence of abortion. “There are anecdotal reports of women who have gotten abortions to avoid prosecution for delivering drugs to the fetus,” he says. During the debate over Wisconsin s law, Francine Feinberg, director of a local drug treatment center that is one of the relatively few devoted exclusively to the treatment of women and their children, said that calls for help had already dropped dramatically. “The primary reason pregnant women with alcohol and drug problems do not seek prenatal care or treatment for their addiction is fear of being turned in to the authorities and ultimately losing their children,” said Feinberg. “In terms of public health and better outcomes, these laws don’t get us anywhere,” Nelson adds. “There is no evidence that criminalization or any of these laws improve the lives of mothers or their children.”


“At least 80% of the women I see in recovery have experienced incest or sexual abuse,” says Ada “Cookie” Rodriguez. “I used to think I was unique.” Cookie, who now works as assistant director at Exponents, Inc., an organization which helps addicts deal with HIV issues and trains them to educate others, grew up in the Marcy Projects in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York. She was raised in a single-parent home, with three half-siblings. She describes the men her mother dated as “abusive, alcoholics, dope fiends or all three.” At five, Cookie was molested by an uncle. She was also sexually abused by her grandfather – and when she told her mother about it years later, her mother said, “He did that to me, too.” Cookie was initially outraged that her mother hadn’t tried to protect her; now she says, “Parents do the best they can with what they know, and that gives me some solace.” But she adds,”I’m still angry and resentful sometimes.”

In elementary school, Cookie was classified as gifted, but she dropped out of junior high. She couldn’t take the teasing other kids inflicted on her for being fat. At age 11 or 12, she started smoking pot and at 13, she remembers, she had “one of the best experiences I have ever had in my life” after stealing LSD from the uncle who had molested her.

By 14, she was shooting cocaine and heroin; by 16, she was addicted. Her relationships with men were violent and abusive. One man, whom she finally fled with just the clothes on her back, “kicked my ass for breakfast, lunch and dinner.” She adds, “The sick thing is, I got my own apartment, but then I went back. I used to tell myself ‘a little bit of love is better than no love,’ and after he beat me up, he would tell me how much he loved me and how beautiful I was.”

It took several hospitalizations – in one of which the crack she was smoking crystallized in her lungs, causing cardiac arrest – but eventually Cookie realized that drugs were killing rather than helping, her. She joined Narcotics Anonymous, and after three years clean in that self-help program, she sought further care to deal with her abuse history. “I was having flashbacks,” she says, and describes how her boss asked her what was wrong when she returned after a two-week vacation noticeably heavier. She’d been trying to avoid her pain by eating.

Now 12 years clean and married for six years to a kind and caring man, Cookie says, “I would tell women that there is hope. It’s a cliche, but there’s life after drugs and there’s life after abuse.”

Female addicts are demonized by our drug laws – and drugs are blamed for their problems when in fact, they are simply one way they’ve found to cope with often painful, horrifying, heart-breaking lives. If we want to help women recover and break the cycle of abuse, which is passed on from one generation to the next, we need to stop punishing the victims and start looking at why so many Americans want to blot out their lives so badly that they get addicted to illicit drugs. Until we decide to treat those wounded in the battles against illicit drugs with the same dignity and respect we reserve for others who have been hurt and are desperate for relief, we will continue to fight a losing war.

Maia Szalavitz has written for The New York Times, New York magazine and the Washington Post and recently served as series researcher for Moyers On Addiction: Close to Home, a five-part PBS series.