Kathie Kane Willis Credit: Alison Green

Long before she became a professor and researcher, Kathie Kane-Willis had an unpleasant personal look at our nation’s drug policies. She started using heroin at 19, and as it developed into an addiction she went through periods of homelessness and ended up in jail for credit card fraud and shoplifting. When she was released she went back to using. And she says it could have been worse. Kane-Willis was eventually able to get treatment, kick her habit, and redirect her life. “If I hadn’t been a white woman with a private attorney, my experiences would have been much different,” she says. “You can’t fix substance abuse problems by putting people in prison.” Kane-Willis made drug-policy research the focus of her career, and eight years ago she cofounded the consortium to pursue evidence-based answers beyond the criminal justice system. Among the consortium’s recent findings: heroin use has increased in the suburbs despite tough laws against it, and municipalities across Illinois have decriminalized marijuana possession with no signs of increased use. Kane-Willis is hopeful that views are shifting toward more effective and humane approaches. “There’s probably nothing we can do that’s worse than what we’ve been doing.”