Drug Arrest Statistics: Minimum & Maximum Sentences by Country

Illicit drug use is a problem around the world, and law enforcement agencies are continuously devoting a significant amount of time and resources to combat it.

While it is true that drug crimes are a problem for local and international police forces, that does not mean that they are treated the same by these agencies. The amount of time and effort put into drug law enforcement varies from country to country for a number of reasons, with a major one being the severity of the laws they are enforcing in the first place.

There are countries where offenses like simple drug possession are punished with little more than a slap on the wrist, while in other places, that same crime would garner a multi-year prison sentence. More serious crimes, such as trafficking, are met with severe punishment in most countries, but even in those instances, there is a range that those punishments can take, from lengthy prison stays up to the death penalty.

To get a clearer picture of how the world’s police approach drug issues, the Sunrise House team decided to gather as much information as we could on the number of arrests for drug crimes in countries from all around the world so we could compare them to one another. We also wanted to compare minimum and maximum punishments for citizens caught committing those crimes. Once we had gathered up all of that data, we just knew we had to map it out to share with the world. 

Overall Drug Arrests by Country


Overall drug arrest statistics by country

We utilized the 2018 edition of the United Nations World Drug Report for the majority of our research and supplemented that with data released directly by official law enforcement agencies where necessary. Through these sources, we were able to collect data on reported drug arrests for more than 50 countries around the world, including many of the world’s most populated nations. For the purposes of this evaluation, we focused solely on total arrests for drug crimes, as data on the ultimate legal repercussions in terms of convictions and punishments are not as readily reported or available.

In terms of raw arrests, our analysis found that the United States far outpaces the rest of the world, arresting more than 1.6 million people in the most recent year arrests data was available. The rest of the countries in the top five are a mix of nations from around the world, with Iran, South Africa, Germany, and France all arresting more than 200,000 people for drug offenses.

Drug Arrests Per 100,000 Citizens By Country

Drug arrest rates per 1,00,000 citizens by country

Of course, raw numbers don’t present the most accurate picture given the huge disparity in the size of different countries. To give a more relative evaluation, we took the population of each nation in our analysis as well as the number of drug arrests in each and crunched the numbers to find out the number of drug arrests per 100,000 citizens, allowing us to more accurately compare these countries to one another.

The numbers that adjustment produced show that Sweden, which has adopted a zero-tolerance policy, arrests far more people on average than any other country, with 951 arrests per 100,000 people. That number is more than 300 higher than the next highest nation, Malaysia. Australia, Scotland, and South Africa round out the top five, with the United States – the leaders in terms of raw arrests – sliding all the way down to sixth place according to this metric.

Minimum Criminal Sentences For Drug Crimes By Country

Minimum prison sentence for drugs by country

Of course, arrest numbers only tell part of the story when it comes to drug crime around the world. We also wanted to look at how different countries punish drug offenders, as that can give an insight into an official government attitude towards such crimes. We color-coded a pair of world maps and ordered the relating tables based on the severity of minimum and maximum punishments outlined in drug enforcement policies. Keep in mind that minimum punishments are typically for very minor crimes of possession for personal use and similar offenses while the major punishments are typically reserved for those involved in drug production and trafficking.

In terms of minimum punishments, one thing that jumped out is that despite arresting the most people per capita of any nation on earth, Sweden is very lenient with their minimum punishments, frequently issuing fines or six months or less of jail time. The United States, infamous for controversial mandatory minimums, is near the end of our table, giving offenders 5-10 years in prison for many drug arrestees. Still, that pales in comparison to Uganda and Egypt, who have hard-line sentencing standards that call for 25 years in prison for these kinds of crimes.

Maximum Criminal Sentences For Drug Crimes By Country

Maximum prison sentence for drugs by country

In terms of maximum penalties, it is quickly obvious that there are a large number of countries where getting caught trafficking drugs could spell the end of your life. 14 different nations in our analysis still use the death penalty for their worst drug offenders, while 12 more can sentence criminals to life in prison if they see fit. Once again, Sweden is among the most lenient nations around, with 6-10 years in prison being their top punishment.


No matter the severity of the offense, getting arrested for a drug crime is something that nobody wishes to experience. At Sunrise House, it is our sincerest hope that anyone that needs help with addiction and finds themselves on the wrong side of the law for such a reason will recognize their arrest as a wake-up call and seek help. For those looking for such a resource, be sure to contact us today at SunriseHouse.com.

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