Researchers and policymakers are paying increased attention to the effects that drug possession penalties may have on exacerbating racial and ethnic inequality in Illinois and across the country. According to a study, reforming the criminal penalties for drug possession convictions could help reduce inequality in the criminal justice system. However, the positive effects may be felt outside the justice system as drug law reform could also help to reduce inequality in the health sector.

The effects of felony drug convictions don’t end with a criminal trial and sentencing. Long after the conviction, people may lose access to immigration status, jobs, housing, student loans or health benefits. The racial inequality in the criminal justice system, especially in drug possession cases, can be magnified further throughout society due to these ongoing impacts. Felony convictions are closely correlated to economic marginalization and social exclusion, and reducing the number of felony convictions could thus help improve health outcomes for a population.

The researchers noted that by reclassifying simple drug possession charges to misdemeanors rather than felonies, convictions decrease as do health and economic disparities between black and white communities. The theory has played out in practice; in California, after such a reclassification proposition was passed in 2014, racial disparities in arrests dropped significantly. While 1 million drug arrests were made after the law passed, the absolute disparity between black and white convictions dropped from 81 to 44 per 100,000 and has continued to lessen.

The focus on criminalizing drug use in communities of color has, according to researchers, had a devastating impact on an individual and a collective level. People who are facing drug charges may work with a criminal defense lawyer to challenge police evidence and prosecution narratives. An attorney may work to avoid a conviction and its associated negative repercussions.