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Blowing the Whistle on the Drug War — At Last

Neal Peirce / Aug 13 2013

For Release Tuesday, August 13, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal Peirce I thought I’d never live to see the day. But now it’s happened. An attorney general of the United States has finally said he is ready to blow the whistle on America’s ill-fated, racially tinged and cruelly applied “war on drugs.”

Eric Holder signaled the shift in a speech Monday to the American Bar Association. He admitted that the drug war, which his department has spearheaded, has wrought grim “unintended consequences,” including devastating “communities of color” — part of “a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration that traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities.”

That’s precisely the point critics have long made. I’ve decried the drug war and soaring imprisonments in dozens of my columns, from 1987 to the present. I’ve found it incomprehensible that presidents, both Republican and Democratic, could continue to ignore the moral, practical imperative of reforming a penal system that results in the United States, with just 5 percent of world population, incarcerating almost 25 percent of all prisoners.

There’d been hope that President Obama, acutely aware of the system’s failing since his community organizing days, would move for reform soon after taking office. He didn’t. Holder didn’t either, countenancing continued prosecutorial crackdowns, even on low-level marijuana offenders.

“Attorney General Holder should have said years ago what he said today — and he knows it,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. Nadelmann added that “tens, perhaps hundreds of Americans have suffered unjustly as a result of the delay.”

But now, at least, Holder pledges to make criminal justice reform a cornerstone of the rest of his tenure as attorney general. Interest in reform is growing, with several bipartisan bills in Congress.

With luck, we may even see President Obama himself speak out, using the moral authority of his office to press for change.

National awareness of the futility of the drug war has risen in recent years. And there’s growing understanding, in an era of fierce budget shortfalls, that billions of dollars are being expended — by federal and state governments — on prosecutions and incarcerations that do little to stem drug use or crime.

What’s not yet clear is how broad the Obama administration’s openness to drug law reform will actually be.

A top example: The White House drug czar’s position is now vacant. Will the president appoint a new director who’s seriously interested in shifting policy focus from drugs as a criminal justice issue to health issues and ways to reduce mass incarceration?

And there’s the question of pardons. Anthony Papa, media manager of the Drug Policy Alliance, who was imprisoned 12 years under New York State’s Rockefeller drug laws before receiving clemency, says it isn’t clear what the administration’s new policy will mean for people now behind bars. His proposal: “Obama should use his presidential authority to pardon and, in particular, commute the sentences of people who were charged under the old 100-to-1 crack to powder cocaine ratio. Society would be better served by not locking up people for extraordinarily long sentences for nonviolent, low-level drug offenses. It’s a waste of tax dollars and human lives.”

The reality is that the Obama administration — at least to now — has been extraordinarily slow in issuing presidential pardons for any reason. Another question is how vigorously Holder will move to shift the focus of the 94 U.S. attorneys around the country, urging them to focus drug prosecutions on major, not small-time users and dealers. Close to half the drug convictions in federal courts are for minor offenders such as street-level dealers and couriers, according to the Washington-based Sentencing Project.

And how will the Justice Department handle the issue of voter-approved legalization of marijuana use and sale in Colorado and Washington — actions easily interpreted as violations of federal law?

While presidential and Justice Department support for justice reform can affect national thinking, the vast majority of criminal cases — for drugs and most other offenses — are in the hands of state governments.

Holder indicates it’s positive that 17 states have recently redirected money from prison construction to such services as treatment and supervision that are designed to reduce the problem of repeat offenders.

Among the lead states today that he cites are Kentucky, Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Hawaii.

But a massive reform agenda still needs to be carried out, nationally and in the 50 states, if we’re to return to the rational and balanced crime approach that prevailed in America before President Richard Nixon 42 years ago proclaimed and plunged us into an ill-advised, never-winnable “war on drugs.”

Let us hope Holder’s switch marks the beginning of the end for that policy and the millions of human tragedies that have flowed in its wake.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

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  1. Dennis M Ryan
    Posted August 13, 2013 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    As we used to say in the “60’s, Right On, man!

  2. Posted August 13, 2013 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    Ah-men that perhaps the change has begun…AND

    De dicho al hecho
    hay mucho trecho…..from the saying to the accomplished fact there is a ‘Grand Canyon’ sized distance.

    My profession at the national level will continue to fight fiercely any reduction in WOD or end drug prohibition. It is about the money and to a lesser degree emotional (when we end prohibition, it becomes official that every cop died for nothing, nada, zippo )

    Vested interests in no particular order:

    All federal law enforcement agencies
     Law enforcement
     The drug trafficking organizations
     The pharmaceutical industry
     The advertising industry and the media
     The prison industry – private and state run
     The banking industry
     The tobacco and liquor industries
     The drug testing industry
     The drug treatment industry
     The home security industry
     Gun dealers
     The defense industry

  3. Posted August 13, 2013 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    Attorney General Holder’s speech was harshly attacked by the National District Attorney’s Association here:

    Holder was “repeating a myth.” His comments left prosecutors “shaking their collective heads.” His guidance to U.S. prosecutors was “both reckless and unprecedented.”

    I was heartened by the Attorney General’s speech, but I thought his actual proposals were unspecific, lackluster, or even wrong headed. His proposal, for example, that local U.S. prosecutors develop local prosecutorial guidelines in drug cases has it backward. These should be developed in Washington to focus on national and international top-level drug traffickers. Inevitably local prosecutors will focus on local drug traffickers. The biggest local drug trafficker is almost never a federal case. Every state has specialized narcotics teams and plenty of prison beds for the most serious traffickers in the state. The U.S. responsibility in fighting dangerous drug traffickers is to go after the highest level offenders who otherwise have complete impunity in Mexico, Colombia, Afghanistan, Thailand, Nigeria, etc. This can’t be done by a small task force — these targets should be the primary focus of the DEA and federal law enforcement establishment. It is hard work. But Holder’s approach would let most U.S. Attorneys be AWOL from the global struggle in order to break down doors in the ghetto of local dealers.
    Other elements of Holder’s “Smart on Crime” report reek of small potatoes such as holding anti-violence “forums.”

  4. Posted August 13, 2013 at 7:01 pm | Permalink


  5. Darrell Marcy
    Posted August 13, 2013 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    Unfortunately, I think the very skeptical views of the two comments above is more in order. Mr. Obama’s administration is weak throughout, afraid to lead, afraid to take on vested interests, afraid to cross the Man.

    Nevertheless, on to Free (as in liberated) Colorado!

  6. Nancy Connors
    Posted August 14, 2013 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    I would like to repeat here my on-line comment on the NYT 8/13/13 reporting on Holder’s new stance on criminality at the federal level on drug offenses. My experience as a mitigation specialist for Capital cases at the state level informs my comment.
    “Incarceration tatters the ties of an individual with the greater community. Each prisoner needs a comprehensive re-entry plan and strategy that begins at least a year prior to release. That plan needs to cover realistic plans for locating a place where the person will live, building the skills needed to get paid legitimate employment in the community, recovering from any addictions to drugs and alcohol and developing/repairing relationships with family members and friends.
    This may sound “do-good liberal” to some readers however a methodical plan would be an investment with the result of diminishing long term pain and suffering in the community that receives the person following incarceration.
    It could yield a reduction in crime, court costs, and community disruption and decay.”

  7. Mary DeWolf
    Posted August 14, 2013 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Since “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” the schools must succeed in teaching the negative effects of drug use before our laws are radically changed.
    Impaired minds can neither learn nor apply the science and math now so strongly touted. What about all the other fields of endeavor? Do you want them to end?
    Would doctors, nurses, hospitalization, homes, rehab etc. bankrupt Obamacare ?
    How much more lung cancer would result? other sicknesses??
    What would be the unintended consequences that Eric Holder can’t begin to estimate??
    If Arnold J. Toynbee were still alive, would he see the U.S.A. heading down the righthand slope of his latest pyramid?
    Don’t let the devil replace God.

  8. kirk peterson
    Posted August 14, 2013 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    This commentary reminds me of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s comments to the legislature in his state-of-the-state speech on being re-elected last year, that he intended to close a number of state prisons and that a corrections system is not a jobs program. His comment was in response to the peopling of upstate New York with young men of color arrested for low-level drug offenses under the Rockefeller Drug Laws and held in dozens of new prisons–New York’s gulag.

  9. Posted August 14, 2013 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    Long overdue. The War on Drugs has been a national circular firing squad.

  10. Posted August 15, 2013 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    Mary DeWolf implies, either seriously or as satire, that the government has an obligation to keep drugs out of our hands to keep us smart, i.e., so we can learn science and math. That’s a dramatic expansion of government’s role as “nanny state”. Presumably such an Uncle and Aunt Sam would also keep us fit against our will?

    Besides, I’m not sure that anyone has done a good demographic study of the generation that grew up in the late sixties/early seventies when many college dormitories had that unmistakeable blue haze wafting down the corridors. Did we grow up dumber than we should have, given our penchant for “better recreation through chemistry”? Certainly hardcore drug use is bad for the health, but like alcohol, the prohibitionists impose more harm on society than good, in my estimation. The Drug Gulags and ruined lives being but two examples.

  11. Posted August 15, 2013 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    Mary DeWolfe calls for the continuation of drug prohibition, citing all the ills, problems of drug use/abuse…no argument from me.

    My question Mary is: how does drug prohibition help the situation? 5-6-7 teens are shot every day in the USA due to their job of selling drugs, etc, etc, etc.