By Nora D. Volkow / Health Affairs

The damaging impacts of punishment for drug possession that disproportionately impact Black lives are wide ranging. Imprisonment leads to isolation, an exacerbating factor for drug misuse, addiction, and relapse. It also raises the risk of early death from a wide variety of causes.

Besides leading to incarceration, an arrest for possession of even a small amount of cannabis—a much more common outcome for Black youth than White youth—can leave the individual with a criminal record that severely limits their future opportunities such as higher education and employment. This excess burden of felony drug convictions and imprisonment has radiating impacts on Black children and families. Parents who are arrested can lose custody of their children, entering the latter into the child welfare system. According to another analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts, one in nine African American children (11.4 percent) and 1 in 28 Hispanic children (3.5 percent) have an incarcerated parent, compared to one in 57 White children (1.8 percent).

This burden reinforces poverty by limiting upward mobility through impeded access to employment, housing, higher education, and eligibility to vote. It also harms the health of the incarcerated, their non-incarcerated family members, and their communities.