In 1980, about 5,000 Americans were serving time in federal prison for drug offenses. By 2012 the number was 95,000, according to an analysis from the Public Safety Performance Project at Pew Charitable Trusts. The average prison sentence for federal drug offenders also increased by 36 percent over this period, from 54.6 months to around 74 months. So has all this dampened our drug trade at least a little bit? As you probably guessed, the answer is no.
According to "the best available data," notes Pew, "increased penalties for drug offenders—both at the federal and state levels—have not significantly changed long-term patterns of drug availability or use." In national surveys, the share of Americans ages 12 and older who said they had used an illicit drug at least once in the past month rose from 6.7 percent in 1990 to 9.2 percent in 2012 (a trend driven by growing marijuana use, which offset cocaine's declining popularity). Meanwhile, drug prices have fallen and drug quality has risen.
Those convicted of drug crimes are as likely to reoffend as ever, despite tougher federal sentencing laws (including many new mandatory minimum sentences) and their extension to people who play even minor roles in drug trafficking. "Despite substantial expenditures on longer prison terms for drug offenders, taxpayers have not realized a strong public safety return," Pew concluded.
The proportion of federal prisoners who were drug offenders peaked in 1994 at 61 percent and has been steadily declining in recent years. It now stands at around 49 percent. But this is at least in part due to growing federal prison admissions for other offense categories, such as sex crimes.