War on Drugs

  • September 26, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    If you are in prison today, you are likely a minority and poor, as Southern Center for Human Rights leader Stephen Bright noted in an interview with ACSblog highlighted earlier this week.

    Many are also imprisoned for non-violent drug crimes. A report from the Brennan Center notes that nearly “half the people in state prisons are there for drug crimes. Almost half the people in federal prisons are there for drug crimes. Only 7.6 percent of federal cocaine prosecutions and 1.8 percent of federal crack cocaine prosecutions are for high level trafficking.”

    While the Department of Justice recently announced that prosecutors should not seek mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases, Professor Alex Kreit notes that there are “many moving parts” to the nation’s costly war on drugs, which have developed over several decades. The drug war and its impact will not be erased overnight.

    In an interview with ACSblog, Nkechi Taifa, senior policy analyst for the Open Society Foundations, takes note of the lengthy war on drugs and its devastating impact on minority communities.

    Taifa said, “Communities of color are disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs, by mass incarceration.” And even with some progress, such as the enactment of the Fair Sentencing Act, the statistics “remain staggering.”

    She continued, “It is daunting to know that one in three young black men are under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system on any given day, at any given time; whether in prison, whether in jail, whether on probation, whether on parole.”

    Taifa concluded that the situation has greatly harmed generations of minorities. “This absolutely must stop."

    Watch the entire interview here or below.

  • September 26, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Alex Kreit, Associate Professor of Law, Director, Center for Law & Social Justice, Co-Director, Criminal Law Fellowship Program, Thomas Jefferson School of Law. Kreit is also author of the ACS Issue Brief, “Toward a Public Health Approach to Drug Policy.”

    When Gil Kerlikowske took office as drug czar four years ago, he said he was going to retire the concept of the war on drugs. During Obama’s first term, however, his policies did not live up to the bold rhetoric.  There were a handful of reforms -- perhaps most notably, a reduction (though not elimination) of the disparity between crack and powder cocaine. But at its core, federal drug policy remained almost entirely unchanged between 2009 and 2012.

    In recent weeks, the Obama administration has turned its words into action by tackling one of the most significant and criticized features of the drug war: mandatory minimum sentencing.

    Enacted in the 1980s, the mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws were the embodiment of the “war on drugs” mentality.  Indeed, it’s difficult to think of another federal law or policy as closely linked to the drug war. 

    Last month, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a new charging policy, instructing federal prosecutors not to seek mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases that met certain criteria.  With some of the criteria left open to interpretation, I wrote last month that only time would tell the policy’s true impact. Will the Department of Justice closely monitor local prosecutors to ensure compliance and consistent interpretation of the policy?  Or, will federal prosecutors be given the leeway to circumvent or narrowly apply the new policy?

    While it will take at least a few more months to know the answers to these questions, last week Attorney General Holder issued a second memo that provides reason for optimism. Holder’s most recent memo expands the new policy by applying it to defendants who have already been charged and encouraging prosecutors to follow the guidance even in cases where the defendant has already pled guilty and is awaiting sentencing, where it is “legally and practically feasible.”

    This development is a hopeful sign that the Department of Justice is serious about its new policy. 

  • August 30, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Alex Kreit, Associate Professor of Law, Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego. Kreit is author of the casebook, Controlled Substances: Crime, Regulation, and Policy and the ACS Issue Brief, “Toward a Public Health Approach to Drug Policy.”

    Yesterday, after months of anticipation, the Department of Justice announced its response to marijuana legalization ballot measures passed by voters in Washington and Colorado last November.  The DOJ said it does not plan to sue Washington and Colorado to block the new laws.  The agency also released new prosecutorial guidance that indicates it may limit the enforcement of federal drug laws in states that have legalized marijuana for recreational or medical purposes.

    If you felt a sense of déjà vu reading that paragraph, there’s a good reason. 

    In 2009, The New York Times ran a front-page article about a different DOJ memo under the headline U.S. Won’t Prosecute in States That Allow Medical Marijuana.  The 2009 Times article reported that “[p]eople who use marijuana for medical purposes and those who distribute it to them should not face federal prosecution, provided they act according to state law, the Justice Department said Monday in a directive with far-reaching political and legal implications.”

    By early 2012, however, Rolling Stone ran a story titled Obama’s War on Pot in which writer Tim Dickinson forlornly told the story of how “over the past year, the Obama administration ha[d] quietly unleashed a multiagency crackdown on medical cannabis that goes far beyond anything undertaken by George W. Bush.”

    Will the DOJ’s new marijuana policy live up to the hype?  Or, will we see a replay of what happened following the 2009 memo?  Policy advocates seem to be split so far, with some calling it a historic turning point for U.S. drug policy and others taking a wait-and-see approach.

    Only time will provide a definitive answer to this question.  But comparing yesterday’s memo with 2009’s can help us understand what to watch for in the months to come.  A few points are worth particular attention.

  • August 13, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Alex Kreit, Associate Professor of Law, Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego. Kreit is author of the casebook, Controlled Substances: Crime, Regulation, and Policy and the ACS Issue Brief, “Toward a Public Health Approach to Drug Policy.”

    Attorney General Eric Holder announced a new charging policy that has the potential to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences in many drug cases. Holder’s Aug. 12 announcement marks the most significant policy change in what has been, until now, a largely rhetorical shift away from the failed war on drugs

    The new prosecutorial guidelines are aimed at one of the most disgraceful and frequently criticized features of drug war-era mandatory minimum sentencing: tying punishments to drug type and quantity in low-level cases.  The practice began with a hastily drafted law passed by Congress in 1984, at the height of drug war fervor.  The measure sought to increase and standardize punishments in federal drug cases through mandatory minimum penalties.  Legislators claimed that the law would create a two-tiered penalty structure, subjecting so-called “serious” drug traffickers to five-year minimum sentences and “major” traffickers to ten-year prison terms.  (These mandatory penalties can increase to 20-years or even life for defendants with prior felony drug convictions.)

    The problem is that while Congress referred to “serious” and “major” traffickers in debating the mandatory minimum provisions, the five- and ten-year penalties are “triggered not by role but by drug type and quantity instead.”   And, it turns out; drug type and quantity are a poor measure of a drug offender’s culpability. 

    Take drug couriers for example.  Drug couriers are considered expendable by drug organizations.  Most are addicts or otherwise down-on-their luck.  In San Diego, where I live, drug organization recruiters seek out homeless people for this job just a few blocks from the heart of downtown.  They might be paid $1,500 to transport hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of drugs across the border. 

  • April 26, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Despite the rhetoric to move beyond a perpetual “war on drugs” the Obama administration remains mired in the tough-on-drugs mindset and its Justice Department seems befuddled by the states that have legalized small amounts of marijuana for recreational use.

    The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report revealing that the administration’s goals set out in 2010 have largely not been met. The report noted that the Office of National Drug Control Policy and other federal agencies established “seven Strategy goals related to reducing illicit drug use and its consequences by 2015.” GAO continued, “As of March 2013,” its “analysis showed that of the five goals for which primary data on results were available, one shows progress and four show no progress.”

    But, as The Huffington Post’s Matt Sledge reports drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy has just released another drug control plan that builds on the policies the GAO has said are not working. More troubling, Sledge notes that the drug office’s budget “still devotes less than half of it funds to treatment and prevention. The GAO found that prevention and treatment programs are ‘fragmented’ across 15 federal agencies.”

    In an April 24 post on its web site, the Office of National Drug Control Policy bemoans “illicit drug use,” claiming “drug-induced overdose deaths now surpass homicides and car crashes as the leading cause of injury or death in America.” It also declares “we cannot arrest or incarcerate our way out of the drug problem.”

    The language from the administration’s drug control office is softer than rhetoric about the “war on drugs,” which the Nixon administration launched with the enactment of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) several decades ago. But the administration’s drug control office is not embracing drug legalization or even any changes to the CSA, such as removing marijuana from the list of drugs deemed as dangerous as say heroin.

    The muddled message from the Obama administration -- not helped by its Justice Department’s silence on how it will respond to Colorado and Washington, where officials are crafting measures to implement and regulate the recreational use of marijuana -- is preserving tough-on-drugs policies.