War on Drugs

  • 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.

  • December 7, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The Obama administration may be on the verge of irking large swaths of its supporters by employing scarce Justice Department resources to go after users of small amounts of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, where voters, by comfortable margins, voted to legalize limited amounts of possession.

    The New York Times’ Charlie Savage reports that senior officials in the administration “are considering plans for legal action against Colorado and Washington that could undermine voter-approved initiatives to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in those states, according to several people familiar with the deliberations.” Savage goes on to describe some of the possibilities the administration could take – sue the states arguing that federal law trumps state action in this area. (The Controlled Substances Act prohibits sale and possession of marijuana.) The Justice Department wouldn’t talk to Savage about administration plans on the matter, but did highlight a statement issued recently by the U.S. Attorney in Seattle, stating that marijuana remained illegal pursuant to the CSA.

    Andrew Sullivan notes that Pete Guither views the Savage piece as a trial balloon “to see what kinds of reactions there are and what political fallout might come from action … or inaction."

    Sullivan obliges, writing that if administration officials decide “to treat the law-abiding citizens of Colorado and Washington as dangerous felons; if they decide to allocate their precious law enforcement powers to persecuting and arresting people for following a state law that they have themselves just passed by clear majorities; if they decide that opposing a near majority of Americans in continuing to prosecute the drug war on marijuana, even when the core of their own supporters want an end to Prohibition, and when that Prohibition makes no sense … then we will give them hell.”

  • January 11, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Inimai Chettiar, the Policy Counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, where she serves as national legislative counsel to end mass incarceration in states across the country. She has published scholarship on using economic analysis to advance progressive policies, most recently co-authoring Smart Reform is Possible: States Reducing Incarceration Rates and Costs While Protecting Public Safety and Improving Budget Analysis of State Criminal Justice Reforms: A Strategy for Better Outcomes and Saving Money.


    It’s no secret that the United States is the largest incarcerator in the world. It’s also no secret that our government selectively enforces criminal laws disproportionately against poor people and people of color, resulting in the mass incarceration of black and brown Americans. Now, one in nine black children has a parent in prison; there are more black men under the control of corrections than were enslaved in 1850.  Our addiction to incarceration has decimated the social and economic futures of generations of Americans.

    What might be a secret to most Americans, however, is how the budgetary practices of state legislatures may actually be contributing to the mass incarceration problem. A report released today by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and the American Civil Liberties Union explains how poorly performed state evaluations of the budgetary consequences of criminal justice legislation are causing some states to spend unnecessarily on prisons while cutting other vital state programs. The report, Improving Budget Analysis of State Criminal Justice Reforms: A Strategy for Better Outcomes and Saving Money, details how a change to the way states perform budget evaluations of proposed legislation could help reduce our incarceration rate – and save states money.

    Across the nation, state governments are mired in economic crisis. Unfortunately, many states have taken a short-term attitude toward solving their economic problems: in order to balance budgets in the current year, they cut spending on essential public programs like schools, public assistance, and infrastructure. At the same time, almost all states have increased their spending on prisons. Over the last 25 years, state corrections spending grew by 674 percent, outpacing the growth of other spending to become the fourth-largest category of state spending. Currently, almost $70 billion of our annual collective tax dollars go to our penal system, often toward incarcerating people who pose little or no safety risks.

  • December 8, 2011

    by Jeremy Leaming

    President Obama and Congress took a significant step toward “fair and proportionate penalties” for some drug offenders with enactment last year of the Fair Sentencing Act, but additional reform legislation is needed to overcome the harsh effects of the nation’s so-called War on Drugs, a new ACS Issue Brief states.

    Kara Gotsch, the director of advocacy for The Sentencing Project, details, in her Issue Brief, the effect of the “War on Drugs” on our criminal justice system, noting that two laws enacted in the late 1980s created “hefty mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, including mandatory penalties for crack cocaine offenses that were the harshest ever adopted for low-level drug offenses.”

    Specifically, Gotsch writes, persons convicted of “possessing as little as five grams of crack cocaine were subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison. Defendants with at least 50 grams were subject to a ten-year mandatory minimum sentence.” But offenses involving powder cocaine resulted in significantly lighter sentences.

    This sentencing disparity falls disproportionately on “African Americans despite evidence that the prevalence of drug use is similar across racial ethnic groups, suggesting disparate enforcement of facially neutral policies. An estimated two-thirds of all crack cocaine users are white or Hispanic, and surveys of users suggest that they generally purchase their drugs from sellers of the same racial and ethnic backgrounds. Nevertheless, 79 percent of federal crack cocaine defendants in 2010 were African Americans.”

    In 2004, Gotsch notes, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, created in 1984 by Congress and comprising federal judges and lawyers, issued a report declaring that revising “the crack cocaine thresholds would better reduce the [sentencing] gap than any other policy change, and it would dramatically improve the fairness of the federal sentencing system.”