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Women and Drug Use

At Issue:

Drug policy does not affect all populations in the same way. In several key ways, women have been uniquely targeted and differently affected by current policies and trends. Women of color in particular have been targeted for punishment and public humiliation.

Women face unique stigmatization for their drug use, and experience discrimination in their ability to obtain treatment and participate in research protocols. Not until the 1970's was the issue of women's addiction even addressed in the literature. Treatment was largely designed with men in mind, programs for many years simply refused to admit women. While treatment remains scarce for all people, women today experience more barriers to treatment than men. Women's use of and relationship to drugs is often affected by their experiences with domestic violence and their responsibilities for family and children. Women are also disproportionately affected by laws and regulations regarding drug use and welfare reform.

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Women and Drugs

In the 1980's with the advent of the media created crack epidemic, women, particularly pregnant women became the target of punitive law enforcement efforts. Unsupported and misleading stories highlighting the effects of prenatal exposure to cocaine received widespread coverage. These sensational and often inaccurate news reports convinced many that the use of cocaine during pregnancy inevitably caused significant and irreparable damage to the developing fetus. Today, dozens of carefully constructed studies establish that the impact of cocaine on the developing fetus has been greatly exaggerated and that other factors are responsible for many of the ills previously attributed to pregnant women's use of cocaine. Nevertheless, spurred on by the media barrage concerning pregnant women and drugs, legislators in the mid 1980s began introducing numerous legislative proposals addressing the subject.

Today eighteen states have amended their civil child welfare laws to address specifically the subject of a woman's drug use during pregnancy. These laws vary considerably. In some states a pregnant woman's drug use triggers only an evaluation of parenting ability and the provision of services whereas, in others, it provides the basis for presuming neglect or qualifies as a factor to be considered in terminating parental rights. Many other states, as a matter of policy or practice refer positive tox cases to child welfare authorities. As a result of these laws and practices, thousands of women have temporarily or permanently lost custody of their children based on evidence of drug use during pregnancy. Although no state legislature has enacted legislation to punish pregnancy and drug use, over 200 women in 30 states have been prosecuted. As a result of a judicial decision, in South Carolina a pregnant woman who uses an illicit drug may be prosecuted as a child abuser and sentenced to ten years in jail. These laws, practices and decisions have been based largely on myth and misinformation.

Although men still far outnumber women in arrests for drug related crimes, women represent the fasted growing population of people being imprisoned for drug offenses. "Since 1986 The Number Of Women In Prison Has Increased 400%. For Black Women The Rise Is 800%. "Women are also serving harsher sentences. "Women often incur long sentences precisely because they refuse, or are unable, to give prosecutors evidence about their husband's or boyfriend's 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."

This focal point provides articles, links and resources concerning recommended treatment design for women, availability of treatment services for women, and issues such as domestic violence that intersect with drug use. It also provides articles and resources discussing the effects of cocaine on pregnancy, the women who use drugs, the legal trends in prosecutions and punishment of pregnant women and the political context in which these issues arise.

-- By Lynn M. Paltrow, Project Director,
    National Advocates for Pregnant
    Women (NAPW), 45 West 10th Street,
    New York, New York 10011.
    212-475-4218, 212-254-9679 (fax).
    March 2000