“We’re leading in the direction of instigating a new drug war.”
President Richard Nixon launched the war on drugs in 1971.
“America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse,” he declared. “In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.”
The story of how the war on drugs came to be is both fascinating and depressing. Dan Baum, writing for Harper’s magazine last year, explained in great deal not just how counterproductive the policy has been but also its political roots.
Nixon saw drug use as tied to his two main political enemies: the antiwar left and black people.
“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black people,” former Nixon aide John Ehrlichman told Baum, “but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.”
Thus began the disastrous war on drugs, which we’ve waged for nearly half a century with objectively horrid results. Under the Obama administration, we began to slowly change course. There was nothing like a full reversal, but the Department of Justice did provide more flexibility to prosecutors in a broader effort to reduce the prison population.
Whatever progress was made under Obama is now at risk, however.
In a two-page memo released last week, Attorney General Sessions directed federal prosecutors to seek the most severe charges and sentences against defendants, including low-level offenders.
While the memo doesn’t reference drugs or the drug war, it was almost certainly conceived with it in mind. Sessions has long lauded the drug war, and even among Republicans he is extreme in his hardliner stance. So a renewed emphasis on sentencing guidelines is hardly surprising.
But this is a major shift in federal policy. Sessions’s maximalist approach essentially unravels the Obama-era policies that attempted, with some success, to reduce the prison population.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder, who served from 2009 to 2015, called the policy an “ideologically motivated, cookie-cutter approach that has only been proven to generate unfairly long sentences that are often applied indiscriminately and do little to achieve long-term public safety.”
The immediate and long-term impact of Sessions’s policy remains to be seen. If implemented, does it amount to redeclaration of the drug war? How quickly will it produce a spike in the prison population? Given the unpopularity of the drug war, will states feel empowered to push back?