The Drug Law Reforms Eric Holder Won't Talk About

Don't expect to hear about marijuana legalization from the Obama administration.

August 12, 2013, 11:34 AM

Aug. 12, 2013— -- People charged with low-level drug crimes could see reduced sentences under a new Obama administration policy that will be unveiled on Monday.

Attorney General Eric Holder plans to announce the change during a speech before the American Bar Association in San Francisco.

According to reports, the Justice Department will avoid including the amount of drugs when prosecuting smaller-scale, non-violent drug offenders. That will allow federal prosecutors to skirt federal sentencing laws that dole out mandatory punishments for drug criminals, even if those criminals are low on the chain of drug distribution.

The New York Times explains how it would work:

For example, in the case of a defendant accused of conspiring to sell five kilograms of cocaine -- an amount that would set off a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence -- the prosecutor would write that "the defendant conspired to distribute cocaine" without saying how much. The quantity would still factor in when prosecutors and judges consult sentencing guidelines, but depending on the circumstances, the result could be a sentence of less than the 10 years called for by the mandatory minimum law, the official said.

The Obama administration says that it's shifting gears because of overcrowding in prisons and that the move will help curb government spending on corrections. Holder is framing the change as a de-escalation of the federal government's decades-long drug war:

"The war on drugs is now 30, 40 years old," Holder told NPR last week. "There have been a lot of unintended consequences. There's been a decimation of certain communities, in particular communities of color."

But to come anywhere near ending the country's drug war, the government would have to address a much broader range of issues.

Here's what Eric Holder probably won't talk about in his speech on Monday, but should:

1. Legalizing marijuana

The majority of Americans think that marijuana should be legal, but the federal government still classifies it as one of the most dangerous drugs, saying it has "no accepted medicinal use and a high potential for abuse."

The science doesn't back that up. As CNN's Sanjay Gupta recently pointed out, the drug was marked as dangerous because of a lack of research, not because it was found to be harmful.

The Obama administration's top drug-policy official, Gil Kerlikowske, still regards marijuana legalization as "extreme" and has said that referring to it as medicine is the "wrong message."

Enforcement policies have followed this mindset.

In 2010, 52 percent of all drug arrests were for marijuana, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and enforcing marijuana laws costs about $3.6 billion per year.

There's also a clear racial component at work. Despite studies that show whites and blacks use marijuana at roughly the same rates, blacks are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for a pot-related crime.

The drug sentencing reform introduced by Holder on Monday will likely reduce the time that low-level drug criminals serve overall, but it won't address the police work that lands a disproportionate number of non-white offenders in jail.

2. Reigning in asset forfeiture

In 2012, Tulsa police added a new set of wheels to their fleet of standard Ford Crown Victorias: a flashy new Escalade.

The local police department seized the car along with cocaine, marijuana and cash.

How? Asset forfeiture laws, which allow police to claim goods they suspect were purchased with money from a criminal enterprise.

Cash grabs like this have grown under the Obama administration, according to a government report issued last year. The Justice Department's fund from forfeitures went from $500 million in 2003 to $1.8 billion in 2011. And those are just federal seizures.

So what's the problem with police taking money and goods from criminals? Well, the law is being abused more and more, especially at the local level.

Police are actually able to seize goods without charging an individual with a crime, taking thousands of dollars in cash, vehicles and even things like video-game systems and jewelry. You can appeal the seizure, but fighting these cases can be expensive, lengthy and confusing.

Instead of being used against drug barons, local and state asset forfeiture laws are increasingly targeting working-class people who don't have the resources to reclaim their possessions once they've been seized, as a recent New Yorker article points out.

And police departments are growing more dependent on these cash grabs to balance their budgets, and to fund future crime-fighting operations.

3. Taking a scientific approach to drug policy

The Obama administration has tried to change the tone of how we talk about drug policy, with the drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, saying drug abuse is a public health problem.

But the federal government still spends more on domestic and international drug enforcement operations than it does on prevention and treatment.

They've also disavowed scientific research when it comes to the benefits of medicinal marijuana.

After taking over the nation's top drug-policy post in 2009, Kerlikowske said that "marijuana is dangerous and has no medicinal benefit."

That goes against the view of many in the medical community. A recent survey found that 76 percent of doctors would prescribe marijuana to older women to relieve pain from breast cancer, for example.

And while prescription drugs carry a serious threat of a deadly overdose -- one happens every 19 minutes in the U.S. -- there's never been a documented case of a fatal overdose from marijuana.

The federal drug policy around pot is endemic of a broader approach to drugs where law enforcement actions are prized above science, research and public health.

The Obama administration may be cutting back on harsh federal sentences for drug crimes, but there's still a glaring disconnect between federal policy and what we know about drugs.

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