The war on drugs (like most politically proclaimed wars) has been a disaster. Even if you do not consume illegal drugs (I prefer red wine or an occasional glass of Bookers), the cost of the war on drugs should be of great concern. Incarceration rates have skyrocketed (as have the financial and human costs). With 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States houses about one-quarter of the world’s prisoners, and many of these are serving mandatory sentences for drug-related offenses in prisons that are already running over capacity. Moreover and there is evidence that the focus on interdiction has had an unintended consequence. Marijuana is bulky and easy to detect; the risks of trafficking have both driven up the costs of marijuana and created incentives for dealers to shift to drugs like heroin, crack cocaine, crystal meth and prescription pain killers. The result: the costs of more dangerous drugs have fallen significantly. For for many young people, experimentation with drugs involves far more dangerous and addictive drugs than in the past.
One can take some pleasure at the news that Attorney General Holder is going to announce a significant change in federal policy. As the Washington Post reports,” low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with no ties to gangs or large-scale drug organizations will no longer be charged with offenses that impose severe mandatory sentences.”
Holder is calling for a change in Justice Department policies to reserve the most severe penalties for drug offenses for serious, high-level or violent drug traffickers. He has directed his 94 U.S. attorneys across the country to develop specific, locally tailored guidelines for determining when federal charges should be filed and when they should not.
Such a move is certainly a step in the right direction (although I can imagine that it will attract the ire of many social conservatives and those in the GOP who automatically reject any policy proposals from the Obama administration). Unfortunately, the change in policy does not appear to extend to the issue an marijuana legalization in the states. As the Washington Post notes: “Holder does not plan to announce any changes in the Justice Department’s policy on marijuana, which is illegal under federal law. Two states, Colorado and Washington, legalized marijuana in November. Supporters of the measures argued that hundreds of millions of dollars have been wasted on a failed war against marijuana that has filled American prisons will low-level offenders.”
The Controlled Substances Act classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug. This places it in the same category as heroin–an absurdity from a public health perspective. One could only hope that Congress would promote the legislative changes that would allow the states to make their own policies with respect to marijuana while embracing Holder’s announced changes in mandatory sentencing.