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Eric Holder Was Great On Drug Policy; Will His Successor Throw It All Away?

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Attorney General Eric Holder's resignation represents a scary moment for Americans who care about ending both marijuana prohibition and the nation's infatuation with mass incarceration. I wouldn't have said that two years ago but I say it without reservation now. During their first term, both President Obama and the attorney general would privately respond to criticisms of their lackluster record on reforming drug and criminal justice policies by insisting that it needed to be a second-term priority, if they got the chance.-For Holder in particular, this was, he told friends, a legacy issue, one he hoped would shape how his years in office were remembered.-His sentiments were likely shared by Obama, for whom the hypocrisy of interrupting and derailing the lives of so many young people, especially black and brown, for doing what he too once did, was inescapable.-

As he told the New Yorker's David Remnick, "We should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing." In the weeks following his re-election, Obama added: "There are millions of lives out there that are being destroyed or distorted because we haven't fully thought through our [criminal justice] process."-The real leadership on broader sentencing reform, however, came from Eric Holder.

In August of 2013, the attorney general issued new guidelines to federal prosecutors designed to reduce the number of people charged with harsh mandatory minimum sentences.-In November, speaking in Medellin, Colombia, to an inter-American gathering of public security ministers, he condemned the mass incarceration policies in his own country as "both inadvisable and unsustainable."- "It carries," he said, "both human and moral costs that are too much to bear."

In January, he successfully lobbied the Senate Judiciary Committee to pass the farthest-reaching reform of mandatory minimums to date.-In April, perhaps prompted by harsh criticism of how few clemencies Obama had issued, the administration announced a major clemency initiative that could free hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people locked up for low-level drug offenses. Meanwhile, Holder's changes in how drug offenses are charged, and his support for sentencing reform in the U.S. Sentencing Commission and Congress, will lead to thousands released early or sentenced to shorter terms.

Even more remarkable than Holder's bold speeches and reforms on sentencing matters was his shift on marijuana policy last year.-This represented a remarkable turnabout from Obama's first term, when the president mocked the notion of legalization and Holder warned California voters that federal agents would "vigorously enforce" federal law if Californians approved a legalization initiative on the ballot in 2010.-The first hint that change might be afoot came two years later, when Holder refrained from-issuing similar warnings to voters in Colorado, Washington and Oregon, notwithstanding the entreaties of former drug czars and DEA chiefs.-And a second hint became apparent following the Election Day victories in Colorado and Washington, when the newly re-elected Obama administration said it needed time to think about its response.

The real break came in August last year when the Justice Department issued a qualified green light for the two states to proceed with implementing the new laws.-The significance of that step is routinely underestimated.-It sent a message to other states, and the country at large, that other states might proceed with enacting similar laws.-Public support for legalizing marijuana jumped nationwide during the months that followed.-And the Justice Department's new approach forced a change in American foreign policy, with U.S. ambassadors no longer objecting to other nations' marijuana policy reforms.

Perhaps most significantly, the State Department reversed a long-standing policy regarding the international anti-drug conventions.-After decades of insisting that all governments adhere to a strict, uniform and punitive interpretation of the treaties, the State Department's narcotics chief, William Brownfield, announced that the U.S. government now favored a "flexible" interpretation of the conventions.-And when Coloradans pointed out that federal law made it practically impossible for the marijuana industry to engage in normal banking, Holder responded with a good faith effort to address their concerns. The bottom line: Holder delivered on both marijuana and broader sentencing reform like no attorney general in recent U.S. history.-His commitment turned out to be real and impassioned.

So there's good reason to worry right now.-Sentencing reform will likely continue to move forward given growing bipartisan support, but not with the same speed or focus.-Federal prosecutors and police agencies need to be pushed and pulled on this, which can only happen when an attorney general is as personally committed as Holder was these past 15 months.

More at risk is the Obama administration's commitment to reforming marijuana policies. Holder was practically isolated in this regard, apart from the fact that Obama appeared to have his back.-The drug czar and the head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse have been more open than their predecessors to more flexible and innovate approaches to drug misuse but still mimic their hostility to marijuana reform.-The head of the DEA, Michele Leonhart, was openly defiant of the attorney general's reforms, until he apparently reeled her in a few months ago.-Who will discipline her now?-Participants at last week's special drug session of the Organization of American States say that Brownfield, the State Department's representative, practically winced when Holder's name and reforms were mentioned.-Who's going to feel any responsibility now for ensuring that U.S. international drug policy conforms to the Obama administration's shift in domestic drug policy? If President Obama wants to honor Eric Holder's legacy and truly make it his own, he needs to appoint a successor who shares the vision and passion that made those historic reforms possible.



News Moderator - The General @ 420 MAGAZINE ®
Source: Politico.com
Author: Ethan Nadelmann
Contact: Contact Us
Website: Eric Holder Was Great on Drugs - Ethan Nadelmann - POLITICO Magazine