Get help today 888-744-0069 or sign up for 24/7 text support.
American Addiction Centers National Rehabs Directory

An Analysis of Drug Sentencing Trends in the US

The United States justice system tries drug offenses on a daily basis, primarily through state courts. Because the vast majority of drug offenses are state cases rather than federal cases, individuals convicted of these crimes are largely tried and sentenced at the discretion of their local justice systems. This can be problematic, specifically because judgments and sentencing can vary so greatly across the US. 

Accordingly, the United States Sentencing Commission developed federal guidelines to provide a general idea of how the courts should handle these cases. But, this is wholly seen as more of a recommendation rather than a rule.

In this study, our team examined sentencing trends for three types of drug offenses: drug possession, drug trafficking, and drug communication facility. The results of our research are compiled below.


Map showing the percentage of drug offenders that are sentenced within federal guidelines by state



Of those cases where the offender went to trial and was sentenced, remarkably few were sentenced according to the federal guidelines laid out by the United States Sentencing Commission. In fact, South Dakota was the most likely state to sentence drug offenses within the guidelines by far at just over 77% of cases sentenced within those guidelines. Meanwhile, Nebraska, Texas, West Virginia, Virginia, and Mississippi came in at 50% of cases scheduled within the guidelines or more. 

All told, only 6 states and Washington D.C. use the guidelines to sentence drug offenses. The remaining 45 states sentenced less than half of their cases within the guidelines.


Map showing the percentage of drug offenders that go to prison by state


So, what exactly were these offenders being sentenced to? There are a few different options for punishment that the court can dole out – prison, community service, house arrest, or any combination thereof. In the vast majority of cases, offenders were given only prison sentences, rather than a combination of any of the above punishments. In fact, Rhode Island was the only state to sentence less than 80% of their drug offenders exclusively to prison.


Chart presenting the median sentence for drug trafficking by state


The median sentence in months for drug trafficking was fairly long in general, but it varied widely throughout the US. Iowa tended to sentence their offenders to the longest sentences, a median of 92 months or 7.7 years. Florida, Indiana, and Tennessee, tied for second place at 87 months or 7.3 years, and tied for third with 84 months or 7 years were Illinois, Minnesota, and Virginia. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Arizona had the shortest median prison terms for their drug offenders at 21 months, less than 2 years! New Mexico and Rhode Island were tied for second-shortest sentences at just 24 months, and Vermont comes in at third-shortest with 36 months.


hart showing the median sentence for drug possession by state

According to sentencing data, the punishment for simple drug possession is far less severe. In fact, in 39 states, the median prison sentence for possession was 0 months. Georgia, New York, Oklahoma, and Texas all had 2 months as their median sentence followed by California with 3, and New Jersey with 4 months median prison sentence. On the upper end of the scale, are West Virginia with 5 months, and Arizona, Ohio, and South Dakota with 6. One major outlier is Kansas, which has a whopping median prison sentence of 37 months, over 6 times the median sentence of the next highest states. 

Regardless of where you live or what kind of sentencing standards your state adheres to, drug offenses are typically a difficult consequence of the disease of addiction. If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, our team has the resources to get them the help they need. You can contact us here for more information.


Can I use this information?

The information and graphics in this blog post can be used and displayed by all commercial and non-commercial websites without charge. However, use is only permitted with proper attribution to When using this information or any of these graphics, please include a backlink to this page.


Was this page helpful?
Thank you for your feedback.

American Addiction Centers (AAC) is committed to delivering original, truthful, accurate, unbiased, and medically current information. We strive to create content that is clear, concise, and easy to understand.

Read our full editorial policy

While we are unable to respond to your feedback directly, we'll use this information to improve our online help.