In Virginia and across the nation, the criminal justice system is stacked against defendants who are convicted of drug possession offenses. The outcomes of felony drug convictions are often more severe than just prison sentences, fines and supervised release; there is also a socioeconomic stigma that interferes with future job opportunities as well as obtaining educational and healthcare benefits.
At a time when various states have chosen to allow the recreational use of cannabis, researchers focused on public health policy are supporting the idea of reclassifying drug charges so that marijuana possession and other offenses become misdemeanors. A recent article in the American Journal of Public Health cites the success of a program in California that has been reducing certain drug crimes to misdemeanors since 2014; as a result, the racial disparity of arrests made in the Golden State has diminished considerably.
Researchers from the University of California believe that policy reform with regard to anti-narcotics law enforcement is long overdue. Even since the “War on Drugs” was launched in the 1970s by the Nixon administration, black individuals and other ethnic minorities have been disproportionately subject to arrest and incarceration, often for charges related to possession.
Policy changes similar to those enacted in California are needed in other jurisdictions to lessen the societal impact of drug convictions. At the criminal defense level, lawyers may try to reduce felony possession charges to misdemeanors whenever possible; this is a strategy that seeks to improve the outcome of drug cases, but there is a greater need for systemic improvement. Compared to felonies, misdemeanors may be easier to defend, and this might improve the potential of better outcomes for criminal defense clients who happen to be minorities.
Source: Reuters, “Reducing drug possession penalties may have impact on health inequalities,” Carolyn Crist, 07/13/2018.