Date of Award

Spring 5-4-2021

Degree Type

Capstone Project

Degree Name

Master of Public Health (MPH)


Public Health

First Advisor

Colin K. Smith

Second Advisor

Sheryl M. Strasser


INTRODUCTION: The war on drugs, initially started in 1971, has caused long-lasting effects on the criminal justice system and public health. Despite these effects and calls for reform, forces in charge have resisted changing current drug policies.

AIM: As the conversation surrounding United States drug policies has changed to be more tolerant among the general population, policymakers have been resistive to change, and ineffective policies continue. The aim of this capstone is to synthesize scientific drug policy literature and provide a summative perspective on the impacts and challenges to improve them.

METHODS: A qualitative summation using PEST (political, economic, social, and technological/types) framework criteria of peer-reviewed articles that describes current drug policies within the United States and other countries of relevance, the impact that these policies have on health and inequalities, political/historical context on drug control, usage, and prevalence rates, and the economic impact of these policies from 2010 to 2021.

RESULTS: Twenty articles were included in the literature review to determine influential factors based on the PEST framework. Six articles were on tech/types of current drug policies, six on the social impact that drug policies have on health and inequities, four were on the political context of drug control and usage rates, and another four on the economic impact of current drug policies. An analysis of current drug policies substantiated the claim that the war on drugs has failed, as supply and usage of drugs did not decrease. The impact on population health and inequities were significant and prevalent within minority groups, where incarceration rates have increased exponentially within the past few decades due in large part to mandatory minimum sentencing and racial bias in law enforcement. Usage and prevalence rates within the political context in the United States have also remained markedly high. The economic impact of the drug market and the war on drugs provided some of the most condemning arguments; an increase in the price for a drug caused by a disruption in supply led to greater crime associated with its distribution.

RECOMMENDATIONS: Study findings suggest that an overhaul of the current system is necessary to ensure more equitable and socially just drug enforcement policies in the US. A comprehensive public health approach to drug policy, one which is focused on harm reduction, correcting racial bias, and decreasing mass incarceration, is recommended as an alternative to the current policies.

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