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Sentencing by State 2

have led to overcrowded facilities, skyrocketing prison costs, and major social, economic, and political impacts.

Currently, nearly half of all inmates in federal prisons are serving sentences for drug offenses. Many are fathers and mothers who miss birthdays, graduations, and other milestones. Over three-quarters are black or Hispanic, and about a quarter are not U.S. citizens. More than a third had no or minimal previous criminal records at the time of their sentencing. One man (a father of seven) received a 13-year sentence for possessing the equivalent of two marijuana cigarettes. Two more fathers were handed 20-year sentences for openly running a marijuana dispensary before California officially passed the law legalizing medical marijuana.

To gain a better understanding of drug sentencing in the U.S., we analyzed the latest statistics from a 2015 report by the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC). Which states see the highest rates of drug trafficking? Which drugs dominate each region? How do drug offenses stack up against other types of crime? And what types of sentences are being handed down for drug-related offenses? Keep reading to get the big-picture view of drug sentencing trends in the United States.

Each State’s Top Drug

The map paints a clear picture of the most common drug leading to a conviction in the United States: methamphetamine. Meth topped the list in 27 states, including all of the West, most of the Midwest, and parts of the South. Results from the 2015 National Drug Threat Survey (NDTS), which is conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), indicate that a meth problem may be on the rise. The report also revealed that meth-related treatment admissions and meth seizures have all increased in recent years, and that abuse and availability rates are markedly higher in the Western United States.

Heroin was the most common in 10 states, while powder cocaine was the most prevalent drug in five states (Florida, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, and D.C.) and tied for most prevalent in two (Louisiana and Delaware). Only four states (South Carolina, North Carolina, Massachusetts, and Maine) counted crack cocaine as the top drug for convictions.

Marijuana was the top drug in three of the four states that border Mexico: Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. While large amounts of marijuana are smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico in numerous ways – tunnels, shipping containers, and hidden compartments in vehicles – officials noted that between 2013 and 2014, 24% less marijuana was seized at the southwest border. This may be because Americans are getting marijuana from domestic sources. Currently, 24 states plus D.C. have laws legalizing marijuana in some form, and five of those permit recreational use. Several other states have decriminalized small amounts, which means first-time possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use does not lead to an arrest, a prison sentence, or a criminal record.

Each State’s Top Drug in Offenses

Of all the drug issues facing the country, meth stands out as an ever-increasing epidemic in numerous states. Experts note that between 2009 and 2015, there was a 400% increase in meth seizures along the Southwest border of the United States. As our statistics reveal, certain states in the West and Midwest are hit particularly hard – and the drug is only becoming more potent and more prevalent. In the breakdown of drug offenses by state, meth comprised 94% of substance offenses in Hawaii, 92% in Montana, 82% in Nebraska, 76% in North Dakota, and 72% in both Idaho and Wyoming.

  • Top spot Hawaii has struggled with the issue for years. Between 2010 and 2014, the state spent an average of approximately $17 million per year to battle drug and alcohol abuse. Although treatment programs have proven somewhat successful, one disturbing fact remains: in the past five years, the percentage of people 50 and older who say meth is their drug of choice has nearly doubled.
  • In Montana, authorities call the rate of meth use “alarming.” Although the drug is less frequently manufactured within the state, people are increasingly bringing meth into the state covertly via Highways I-15 and I-90.
  • In Nebraska, authorities note that meth travels across the border from Mexico and makes its way through Arizona and Colorado before ending up in Nebraska. The drug has even been disguised as candy. Despite recent busts, the shipments of meth have continued.
  •  Officials in North Dakota chalk up some of the meth issues to the sudden influx of people and money associated with the state’s oil boom. The drug problem is especially pronounced on a formerly isolated Indian reservation in North Dakota.
  • In Idaho, officials are concerned about the drug’s increasing popularity. The state spends $66 million per year to house male inmates who cite a meth problem, and 75% of offenders who admit a problem say meth is their drug of choice.

Crack cocaine is a mixed bag, with fairly high prevalence in some states – including Connecticut, Maine, D.C., and Vermont. States that stood out for heroin offenses include Ohio, Vermont, and Delaware. Officials in Vermont (where crack cocaine comprised 29% of drug offenses, and heroin accounted for 43%) noted that although heroin gets more publicity, crack cocaine has become increasingly widespread – and that drug busts often yield individuals who are in possession of both drugs simultaneously.

Marijuana made up a whopping 86% of drug offenses in Arizona, as well as 50% in New Mexico and 39% in Texas. Arizona has one of the harshest anti-cannabis laws in the country: possessing even the “slightest speck” of marijuana, according to the Phoenix New Times, can draw a Class 6 felony. In Phoenix alone, an average of 10 people per day are jailed for possession of cannabis.

Proportion of Convictions That Involve Drugs

Drug conviction numbers varied greatly within each state. In West Virginia, 62% of convictions were for drugs. According to a 2015 report, West Virginia had the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the nation – particularly prescription drugs and heroin. In Appalachia, one of the poorest areas of the country, heroin abuse in particular fuels a steep rise in hepatitis C. Next for drug crime prevalence was Vermont which also had a high percentage of drug-related convictions (59%), followed by Hawaii (58%), then Kentucky (55%).

Conversely, in Utah and New Mexico, roughly 15% of offenses were attributed to drugs in each state. In Alabama and New Hampshire, 18% of crimes were related to drug offenses, and in South Dakota they made up 19%.

These drug convictions add up in more ways than one. Despite a decrease in many types of crime, federal incarcerations have dramatically increased in the past three decades – and the trend also sparked a pronounced spike in spending, from $970 million to over $6.7 billion (adjusted for inflation). As of 2014, the average cost to house an inmate is $30,619.85 per year, which breaks down to $83.89 per day. This reduces the money available to put toward crime-reduction efforts such as beefing up the police force or funding education. For instance, during 2013, 11 states spent more on the corrections system than they did on higher education, according to a 2015 report by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Tellingly, the states with the highest rates of incarceration saw the largest budget cuts in education.

Sentence Length by State

In 2014, nearly a quarter of all cases in the U.S. saw offenders convicted for offenses that carried a mandatory minimum penalty. Drug trafficking comprised more than two-thirds of offenses that mandated a minimum penalty. When it came to sentencing for drug trafficking convictions, Mississippi had the harshest penalties, with an average of 121 months handed down. South Carolina was second with 115 months, while Iowa averaged 113, and Louisiana 105.

On the low end was Arizona, averaging a sentence length of 29 months, followed by New Mexico at 30 months. Next came Vermont with an average sentence length of 37 months. Regardless of sentence length, research shows that there is little relationship between the amount of time served and the likelihood of reoffending – which means, taxpayers are probably not seeing a return on their prison-cost investment via enhanced public safety.

Along with the financial costs associated with incarceration, the high rates of imprisonment come with heavy burdens on society. Because many of the people incarcerated are young men in their teens and 20s, they miss obtaining labor skills – and struggle to find opportunities upon release. Additionally, for the 2.7 million children in the U.S. with an incarcerated parent, the emotional and financial effects are pronounced: These children face serious and troubling issues, including trauma, difficulty in school, and homelessness.

Drug Convictions, by State Population

To yield a clearer picture of drug trafficking trends in each state, we adjusted the number of drug crimes based on state population. This ensures that heavily populated states don’t appear to have more crime simply because they have more people.The top state for drug offenses per capita? New Mexico. For every 1 million residents, the state saw just over 300 people convicted of drug trafficking crimes. The state has been designated a high-intensity drug trafficking area, and has been cited as having a high rate of violent crimes and poverty.

West Virginia claimed second place, with almost 215 drug offenders per 1 million, while Vermont, Wyoming, and North Dakota also had relatively high numbers of drug crimes per capita. Colorado is on the other end of the spectrum, with nearly 16 drug trafficking offenders per 1 million residents. In fact, after Colorado legalized recreational marijuana use in 2012, drug arrests in the state plunged 95 percent. New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Minnesota are also home to relatively few drug offenses compared with the rest of the country.

Drug Convictions: State vs. National Statistics

Calculating the number of convicted drug traffickers per 1 million residents revealed that 18 states ranked above the national average. New Mexico led the way for convictions, followed by West Virginia, Vermont, Wyoming, North Dakota, and Arizona. New Mexico’s location is key in this issue. Its proximity to Mexico makes it particularly vulnerable to drug smuggling. Additionally, the state is geographically large but relatively low in population. The state is divided by two major highways: I-25 offering direct access from Mexico and I-40 running east-west from California to North Carolina. A prime road for drug smuggling, I-40 sees a great deal of high-grade marijuana grown in the West and shipped east, as well as certain types of drugs, including heroin, smuggled from Mexico via California. The roads intersect in Albuquerque, transforming the city into a hotspot for drug activity.

The story is similar in Vermont, where some experts point to the state’s location as a factor in its high rates of drug trafficking. It has highways that lead to large cities like Montreal, Boston, and New York. For some traffickers, Vermont offers an easy opportunity to sell drugs on their way through. Other speculations for Vermont’s high rates of illicit drug use include everything from the state’s high income level to its liberal attitudes.

Top Regions for Drug Activity

When it came to high usage rates of certain types of drugs, some neighboring states experience striking similarities. Meth usage was the biggest issue in most of the Pacific, the West Central region, and parts of the Midwest and South. According to the DEA, its dominance in the West can be explained by the fact that most meth that authorities seize originates in Mexico and enters via the southwest border.

Heroin use has skyrocketed over the past decade. Two areas that have seen a high concentration of use are Ohio and the Northeastern U.S. Officials have attributed the rising rate of heroin deaths in the Northeast to an increase in prescriptions of opioid painkillers, which often serve as a gateway drug.

Powder cocaine use is mainly seen in the Northeast and Southern regions; crack cocaine extends to the Midwest. Historically, crack cocaine and powder cocaine have a controversial entanglement with race. Crack has long been associated with poor people who are African-American, while powder cocaine was seen as a symbol of luxury associated with white people. The 1980s saw a disproportionate number of African-American people imprisoned for crack use, and in 2010 President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act in hopes of remedying the racial disparity.

Don’t Become a Statistic

In the U.S., prisons are filled to capacity with nonviolent drug offenders – like the man handed a 25-year sentence for selling pain pills to an informant, the medical marijuana grower sentenced to five years in prison, and the man handed three life sentences for introducing two cocaine dealers to each other. Meanwhile, the price of illegal drugs has declined, illegal drug use has increased, and studies show that mandatory minimum sentences do not have a deterrent effect.

Nearly 7 out of 10 Americans believe the government should switch the focus from prosecution to treatment. In fact, over 6 in 10 support moving away from mandatory prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

While our data reveal that the United States is facing a serious drug problem, it’s clear that the country has not always tackled it in the most effective way. Filling up prisons, spending taxpayer dollars, and disrupting families and people’s futures are not the answers – but rehabilitation is. If you or a loved one are battling with a substance abuse issue, help is available. Visit or call  to get started on the path to recovery.


Data were collected primarily from USSC statistics regarding state crimes. From this, the bulk of the data came from a breakdown of drug-related crimes and respective drugs convictions plus the U.S. Census’ 2015 estimates for the per 1 million residents charts. Drug conviction percentages are based on the percentage of drug-related crimes compared with the state’s overall crimes. The national average weighed in on the drug trafficking sentences is an average across the states. Each of the maps showing regional activity is filtered based on varying percentages to help show how drugs trends come together.

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