Reducing Drug Possession Penalties May Have Impact on Health Inequalities

Reducing Drug Possession Penalties May Have Impact on Health Inequalities

After decades of effort, it’s becoming increasingly clear the War on Drugs carries with it a whole host of unexpected and negative outcomes for society. A key component of criticism of the effort has been significant discrimination against ethnic and racial minorities who are disproportionately targeted by police and judicial sources for drug related law enforcement activities.

In 2014, the state of California passed Proposition 47, which changed the classification of drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. This not only reduced arrests for drug offenses, but also drastically leveled the racial balance of who was arrested for those charges in the first place. Further, the data from California drug related incidents since 2014 has provided a significant window how things play out for those who are caught up those issues.

It was already known that, since the 1970s when the War on Drugs began, black communities had received enormous law enforcement attention for drug arrests. After Proposition 47, there was an almost overnight change in how police directed their drug arrests. What happened is the racial disparity between black, Latino, and white arrests all but vanished. As California is a large state with an equally sizable population, the data available to researchers is helping to provide a very clear window into how better policies can be made going forward.

Key Points:

  • 1Changing laws around possession of ilicit substances can reduce disparities.
  • 2Arrests dropped in California after changes were made to existing drug criminalization laws.
  • 3If more states made these changes and reclassified drugs like marijuana fewer individuals of color would end up in prison.


We know arrests are symptoms of a larger systemic cause, and passing a proposition can decrease felonies but won’t address the issue of embedded racial bias in our society
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