WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

Gender and Drug Policy: Exploring Global Innovative Approaches to Drug Policy and Incarceration

The aim of this series is to share examples of innovative approaches that incorporate a gender perspective and the principles of public health and human rights into drug policy. Such innovations will have the best possible outcomes only when they are accompanied by more fundamental drug law reform.

Across the Americas, drug policies have failed to make a significant dent in the drug trade, while corruption and organized crime continue to thrive. At the same time, these harmful drug policies disproportionately fall on the most vulnerable, including poor women who often enter the drug trade because of desperation, lack of opportunity, and coercion. Stuck in a vicious cycle, the incarceration of these women only heightens their situation of vulnerability and takes a toll on their families and communities.

Global Innovative Approaches highlights various programs and legal reforms from around the world that promote more effective and humane drug policies. The examples include alternatives to incarceration for low-level, non-violent drug offenders, policy reforms, and health and social programs. Many of the briefs analyze programs specifically tailored toward women in conditions of vulnerability. While the details of each approach vary, their goal is to reduce incarceration rates, protect human rights, address public health concerns related to drug use, and assist individuals in transitioning back into their communities after their release.

Each Innovative Approach includes background information and a description of the program or reform, in addition to a section detailing outcomes and results. It is important to note, however, that while some of the approaches highlighted in this series have gone through rigorous review processes, others lack the resources to carry out formal evaluations. Despite this reality, the examples put forward in this series have all shown promise in their results.

While these programs are promising, they should not come at the expense of broader drug policy reform. Yet, in the absence of more comprehensive reforms, these innovations can assist communities caught up in vicious cycles of poverty, social exclusion, drug use, involvement in the drug trade, and incarceration.

Global Innovative Approaches is a tool that accompanies the publication, Women, Drug Policy and Incarceration: A Guide for Policy Reform in Latin America and the Caribbean and is part of the project of Women, Drug Policy, and Incarceration being carried out by WOLA, the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), Dejusticia, and the OAS Inter-American Commission of Women.


Click Below to Read the Series:


1. Incorporating a Gender Perspective into Drug Policies: the Uruguayan Experience

Brief on Gender Perspective in Uruguayan Drug Policy: Uruguay’s drug policy is enshrined in the principles of human rights, public health, and gender. The policy includes the use of an Asset Forfeiture Fund to support gender-sensitive programs run by the government and NGOs focusing on drug prevention, harm reduction, treatment, and social inclusion. These various projects have successfully reduced recidivism rates, drug dependence, and unemployment rates among formerly incarcerated women.

2. Reducing Female Incarceration through Drug Law Reform in Costa Rica

Brief on Female Incarceration in Costa Rica: In 2011, Costa Rica revised its drug legislation to introduce greater proportionality of sentencing and gender sensitivity. The reform reduced the length of incarceration for vulnerable women accused of bringing drugs into prison. The program initially benefited 150 women who were immediately released from prison. All of them were poor, with low levels of education, lacked employment opportunities, and most were heads of household responsible for several children. The reform not only benefited them but also their families.

3. Costa Rica’s Inter-Institutional Network in Support of Women Caught in the Criminal Justice System

Brief on Costa Rica’s Inter-Institutional Approach: In 2014, Costa Rica launched a program through the Public Defender’s Office which works to divert vulnerable women away from the criminal justice system and offer them services such as counseling, drug treatment, and job training. The needs of each woman are determined by a case worker and a tailored action plan is developed for each client. The goals of the program are to reduce recidivism and help women regain their rights and dignity.

4. The 2008 National Pardon: Reducing Female Incarceration in Ecuador

Brief on Ecuador’s National Pardon: In 2008, in response to its prison overcrowding crisis, Ecuador pardoned over 2,300 people convicted of low-level drug offenses, about 30% of whom were women. The pardon had an immediate positive effect on reducing the country’s prison population, especially in the women's prison, El Inca. However, this was only a temporary benefit for lack of a reform of Ecuador’s drug law, which eventually took place in 2014.

5. Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: Proportionality of Sentencing in Ecuador

Brief on Proportionality of Sentencing in Ecuador: In 2014, Ecuador adopted a new criminal code which ensures more proportionate penalties for drug offenses, establishing different thresholds for levels of drug trafficking. The reform drastically reduced the sentence lengths for low-level drug offenses, and led to the release of more than 446 women. A year later, however, Ecuador took a step backward by significantly reducing the thresholds for what qualified as low, medium, and large-scale drug trafficking.


Brief on Supporting the Families of Prisoners in Argentina: ACIFaD is an Argentine non-profit organization that supports the family members of incarcerated individuals by facilitating support groups and networks, and by assisting individual families who have specific needs or questions with regard to their imprisoned family member. ACIFaD advocates for prison reform in Argentina, and raises awareness of the issues faced by children with an incarcerated parent. ACIFaD has served more than 7,000 people who have a family member in prison.

7. JusticeHome: Breaking Barriers & Helping Families via Alternatives to Incarceration

Brief on Alternatives to Incarceration in New York: JusticeHome is an alternative to incarceration program based in New York City, United States, that exclusively focuses on women. Instead of going to prison, selected women can remain at home with their family and get support from a case worker to access drug treatment, mental health services, and parenting and life skills classes. In addition to being significantly less expensive than incarceration, preliminary results of JusticeHome have shown that it has greatly reduced recidivism rates.

8. Diversion from the Criminal Justice System: The LEAD Program in the United States

Brief on Alternatives to Incarceration in Seattle: The "Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion" program is an alternative to incarceration where selected individuals who have committed a drug offense or are engaged in sex work are diverted from the criminal justice system into a program that serves as an alternative to incarceration. The individual meets with a case worker who can then refer the participants to drug treatment centers, shelters, and other social and health services. Studies have found that the program greatly reduces recidivism rates and that participants are more likely to find employment and housing.

9. Women Organizing to Protect Their Human Rights: Project Safe in Philadelphia, United States

Brief on Harm Reduction in the US: Project Safe is a US grassroots organization formed by women engaged in sex work and drug use to provide harm reduction resources and equipment, and promote the wellbeing of some of the most vulnerable and stigmatized women in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Project SAFE also engages in dialogue with the local government, advocacy, and organizing petitions against bills that might further marginalize their constituency.

10. An Alternative to Pre-Trial Detention: The New York City Supervised Release Program at Rikers Island

Brief on New York’s Alternative to Pre-Trial Detention: The "Manhattan Supervised Release" program, implemented in 2013 in New York City, provides an alternative to pretrial detention and allows selected individuals to continue working and living at home with their families as they await their trial. The program has greatly reduced the number of people in situations of economic vulnerability held in pre-trial detention, and program participants are also less likely to be sentenced to prison.

11. Ban the Box: Reducing the Harmful Effects of Criminal Records in the United States

Brief on Reducing the Harm of Criminal Records: "Ban the Box" is a US initiative encouraging states and cities to adopt legislation that requires employers to stop asking a candidate about their criminal record until the interview process is complete. The initiative is based on the fact that if a candidate makes it to the end of an interview process, they are more likely to be hired, even if they have a criminal record. "Ban the Box" initiatives therefore make it easier for individuals with criminal records to find employment after their release from prison.

12. The Portuguese Model for Decriminalizing Drug Use

Brief on Portuguese Decriminalization of Drug Use: In 2001, Portugal decriminalized drug use and possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use. Instead of facing criminal charges, people are referred to a Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, an administrative body composed of health, social, and legal experts which helps participants to address issues related to their drug use. This policy has not only kept people out of prison, it has also significantly reduced stigma, discrimination, and health harms.

13. Ensuring More Proportionate Sentences for Female Drug Offenders in the United Kingdom

Brief on Proportionate Sentences in the United Kingdom: In 2011, the UK reformed its sentencing guidelines for drug offenses in an effort to ensure more proportionate penalties. Judges are now required to evaluate whether the drug offender played a "leading," "significant," or "lesser" role in the drug trade, and to take into account circumstances of vulnerability and the quantities of drugs involved. The reform has led to more proportionate sentencing, particularly for women in situations of vulnerability engaged as drug couriers.


WOLA would like to thank IDPC’s Marie Nougier who coordinated the production of these policy briefs, with the support of Juan Fernandez Ochoa.