Date of Award

Summer 2014

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Public Administration and Urban Policy

Committee Director

John C. Morris

Committee Member

Wie Yusuf

Committee Member

Travis Linnemann


Since the 1970s US drug policy has focused on harsh punishments for drug offenders. A wealth of research indicates that the social and political context of the drug policy discourse is a greater factor in determining drug policy than rising rates of drug use or drug-related crime. While considerable research has examined the factors driving federal drug policy, fewer studies have examined drug policy at the state level. This dissertation studies state drug sentencing policy to determine what factors may explain variation across states. By focusing on the period from 1975 to 2002, this study concentrates on policies passed during the War on Drugs era, which began in 1971 and has only recently shown signs of abating. A policy design framework is used to argue that the social constructions of drug offenders—the way in which they are perceived in society—determines the policies directed towards them, and that negative perceptions are likely to result in more punitive policy. This research also hypothesizes that several other factors are likely to influence punitive drug policy, including the desire to control threatening populations, a conservative political environment, and bureaucratic incentives to pursue drug crimes. Using panel data analysis, this study finds partial support for the premises that negative social constructions of drug offenders and bureaucratic incentives affect state drug sentencing policy.


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