Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity

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Congress Acts to Reduce Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity (FEATURE)

The US House of Representatives Wednesday approved a bill, SB 1789, that addresses one of the most glaring injustices of the American drug war: the 100:1 disparity in sentencing between federal crack cocaine and federal powder cocaine offenders. The bill does not eliminate the disparity, but dramatically reduces it.

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Hill briefing by Crack the Disparity, spring 2009
A companion measure passed the Senate in March. The bill now goes to the White House for President Obama's signature, which is expected shortly. The White House supported the bill.

Under federal drug laws enacted during the height of the crack hysteria of the mid-1980s, a person caught with five grams of crack cocaine faced the same mandatory minimum five-year sentence as someone caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine. And though blacks constitute only about 30% of all crack users, they accounted for more than 80% of all federal crack cocaine prosecutions.

The bill approved by Congress reduces that 100:1 ratio to 18:1. It also removes the mandatory minimum sentence for possession of five grams or less of crack, marking the first time Congress has repealed a mandatory minimum since Richard Nixon was president, although not the first time a law involving mandatory minimums has been scaled back. To the dismay of advocates, the bill is not retroactive.

Under the bill, it will take 28 grams of crack to garner a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence and 280 grams to trigger a 10-year prison sentence. It will still take 500 grams of powder cocaine to trigger the five-year mandatory minimum. Estimates are that, once enacted, the law could affect about 3,000 cases a year, reducing sentences by an average of two years. The shorter sentences should save about $42 million in prison costs over five years.

Criminal Justice Policy Foundation head Eric Sterling has been working to reform the law for nearly two decades -- since just a few years after he helped write it as House Judiciary Committee counsel at the time. The change didn't come nearly fast enough, he said. "I'm very personally relieved," Sterling said. "My role in these tragic injustices has pained me for decades. You realize that probably hundreds of thousands of men and women went to prison for unjustly long sentences that I helped write. It's not something I've ever forgotten."

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scales of justice tilt slightly closer to sanity
He didn't think it was going to happen. "I have become so cynical," he said. "I really doubted the leadership was going to bring it to the floor, and I doubted that the Republicans were going to support it. Even though it had passed the Senate, I didn't think the House Republicans were going to go along. But I was pleasantly surprised that people like Reps. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Dan Lundgren (R-CA) spoke in favor of it, and that the House majority leader went to the floor to speak in favor of it. My cynicism was completely unwarranted here, so I'm very relieved and satisfied."

"Members of both parties deserve enormous credit for moving beyond the politics of fear and simply doing the right thing," said Julie Stewart, founder and president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). "For those of us who have been pushing for reform for nearly 20 years, today's vote is phenomenal. To see members of Congress come together on such a historically partisan issue like this during an election year is heartening. The 100:1 disparity was an ugly stain on the criminal justice system," Stewart continued. "Nobody will mourn its passing -- least of all, the thousands of individuals and families FAMM has worked with over the past 20 years that have been directly impacted. I am hopeful that the forces of reason and compassion that carried the day today will prevail again soon to apply the new law retroactively to help those already in prison for crack cocaine offenses," Stewart concluded.

"This is a historic day, with House Republicans and Democrats in agreement that US drug laws are too harsh and must be reformed," said Jasmine Tyler, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "The tide is clearly turning against the failed war on drugs. I'm overjoyed that thousands of people, mostly African American, will no longer be unjustly subjected to the harsh sentencing laws enacted in the 1980s," Tyler said. "The compromise is not perfect and more needs to be done, but this is a huge step forward in reforming our country's overly harsh and wasteful drug laws."

"Well, I guess there's 80% less racism, but there's still a big problem, though," said Nora Callahan, director of the November Coalition, a drug reform group that concentrates on federal drug war prisoners. "This is a fix on the back end, but as the US Sentencing Commission noted, sentencing really begins when the police start investigating. That whole drug war system of cops and snitches and prosecutors is still in place."

"Substantively, this is not a major policy change," agreed Sterling, "But symbolically, it's very important. I wouldn't have thought this would have made it to the House floor, and I wouldn't have thought this would pass by two-thirds on a recorded vote."

"This is progress, but it's not retroactive, so all the people who worked so hard to pass this bill don't get any reward," said Callahan. "When you leave out the principle of extending justice to all, it's really tough. How do you tell people sorry, we left you out of it?"

Making the law retroactive will be the next battle, but it won't be the only one. "In concrete terms, the next step will be to try to get retroactivity," said Sterling. "The other side of it is to push the president to start commuting sentences."

Washington, DC
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Congress Reduces Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

More big drug policy news from Congress in this last week before the recess: The House has at long last passed legislation, already adopted by the Senate, which will reduce crack cocaine sentences by reducing the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. S 1789 will also repeal the much-condemned five-year mandatory sentence for simple possession of crack.  It heads now to the president's desk -- AP story here.

While the bill does not do nearly everything reformers would like, it is more than a good start. To put the issue in perspective, groups had already been organizing on this issue for a number of years before I got involved in the movement in 1993. It's amazing how much time it takes to get even the most clear cases of racism and injustice addressed (the racism in this case coming in how the law was implemented, rather than the text of it.)

With medical marijuana cleared now in DC, and the Webb criminal justice commission bill moving forward by passing the House (unanimous consent!), it has been a big week for drug policy reform, and a good one, here in Washington.

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Call Congress Today to Tell Them to Vote YES for Crack Cocaine Sentencing Reform

Please Support S. 1789, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010

Call Your Representative Today

 

Dear Colleagues,

 

Early next week, the House of Representatives may vote on legislation, recently passed unanimously by the Senate, to reduce the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine to 18-to-1. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, S. 1789, also would eliminate the mandatory minimum for simple possession of crack cocaine (5 years for 5 grams without intent to distribute). The U.S. Sentencing Commission estimates the changes could reduce the average crack cocaine sentence by nearly 30 months and reduce the federal prison population by 3,800 over 10 years.

NACDL has been working hard with a diverse group of allies to pass this legislation, but we need your help now. Please call your representative today to ask them to vote yes for the Fair Sentencing Act.   If you have never called your Member of Congress before, it's quick and easy. Now is the time to make your voice heard.

Please Take Action by clicking the link and/or entering your zip code to contact your U.S. House of Representatives. Suggested talking points are provided once you follow the instructions and links.

 

Thank you for taking a few moments to help pass this long overdue, historic legislation.

 

Kyle O'Dowd

Associate Executive Director for Policy 

Time is Running Out! Tell Congress to Vote Yes on Crack Reform

Announcement

Sentencing Project
 

Tell Congress To Vote Yes for Crack Cocaine Sentencing Reform


This week, the House of Representatives may vote on legislation, recently passed by the Senate, to reduce the 100 to 1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine to 18 to 1. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, S. 1789, would also eliminate the simple possession mandatory minimum (5 years for 5 grams without intent to distribute), limit the excessive penalties served by people convicted of low-level crack cocaine offenses, and increase penalties for high-level traffickers. The U.S. Sentencing Commission estimates the changes could reduce the federal prison population by 3,800 over 10 years.

Champions for sentencing fairness are urged to contact their representative in the House today to ask them to vote yes for the Fair Sentencing Act. Call the U.S. Capitol Switch Board at 202-224-3121 and ask for your representative. They will patch you through to the correct office.

Once you reach your representative, tell them you support the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, S. 1789 because:

•    The current 100 to 1 cocaine sentencing disparity is unfair. The five-year penalty for possessing as little as five grams of crack cocaine is the same for selling 500 grams of powder cocaine. The law imposes excessive prison sentences for low-level crack cocaine offenses that often exceed penalties for offenses involving powder cocaine trafficking.
•    The current 100 to 1 cocaine sentencing disparity exacerbates racial disparity in federal prisons. Over 80% of those serving time for a crack cocaine offense are African American, despite the fact that two-thirds of users are white or Hispanic.
•    The Fair Sentencing Act, S. 1789, is an historic opportunity to advance justice and restore faith in the criminal justice system. A broad consensus among criminal justice experts, law enforcement organizations, and policymakers has emerged that concludes the current 100 to 1 disparity cannot be justified. Organizations endorsing reform include: the NAACP; Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; American Bar Association, American Civil Liberties Union; the National District Attorneys Association; and the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.
•    The Fair Sentencing Act will also save taxpayers money. Replacing the irrational 100:1 ratio with a new 18:1 ratio will save $42 million over five years, according to Congressional Budget Office.

When you have completed your call to your representative, please email kgotsch@sentencingproject.org and say how it went.  Also, please consider forwarding this email to a friend.

Thank you for joining the effort to reduce the crack cocaine sentencing disparity.

 

The Sentencing Project is located at 1705 DeSales Street, NW 8th Floor, Washington, DC 20036.  Send an email to The Sentencing Project.

The Sentencing Project is a national, non-profit organization engaged in research and advocacy for criminal justice reform.

 

Location: 
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Sentencing: South Carolina Governor Signs Reform Bill, Will End Mandatory Minimums for Some Drug Offenses

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) Wednesday signed into law a sentencing reform package that includes ending mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses. The bill, SB 1154 was based on the recommendations of the South Carolina Sentencing Reform Commission, empanelled by the governor in a bid to slow the growth of corrections spending in the state.

"A number of structural problems with our prison and parole system have prevented Corrections from making improvements that would both discourage recidivism and save taxpayer resources in the process," Sanford said in a signing statement. "This bill accomplishes many of those goals. It's designed not only to make our corrections process even more lean and effective and thereby save taxpayers millions -- but also to reduce overall crime and consequently improve the quality of life we enjoy as South Carolinians."

While South Carolina can brag about how cheaply it can imprison people -- it spends the second lowest amount per inmate in the country -- its prison budgets have soared along with its inmate population since the 1980s. In 1983, South Carolina spent $64 million to keep 9,200 people behind bars; this year, it will spend $394 million to imprison 25,000 people.

The bill attempts to change that trajectory through a number of measures. It ends mandatory minimum sentences for first-time drug possession offenders and allows the possibility of probation or parole for certain second and third offenders. It also removes the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine possession.

It also allows more prisoners to get into work release programs in the final three years of their sentences and mandates six months of reentry supervision for nonviolent offenders. The bill allows for home detention for third time driving-with-a-suspended-license offenders and for route-restricted drivers on first and second convictions.

It isn't all sweetness and light. The bill shifts the status of two dozen crimes, including sex offenses against children, from nonviolent to violent, meaning inmates convicted of those offenses will have to serve at least 85% of their time before being paroled. It also increases penalties for habitual driving-while-suspended offenders who kill or gravely injure someone.

Still, the bill should have a real impact on the system, especially given that drug offenders are the biggest category of offenders in prison in South Carolina, followed in order by burglars, bad check writers, and people driving on a suspended license. Officials estimate the measure will save the state $409 million over the next five years.

Elena Kagan and the Crack/Powder Sentencing Disparity

Obama's Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan once served as deputy director of President Clinton's Domestic Policy Council, where she served on a working group that argued for delaying critically important sentencing reforms:

The memos…show that Kagan served on a government working group that decided to dial back the Clinton administration’s efforts to decrease the disparity in sentencing between crimes involving crack and those involving powdered cocaine. A draft report from the group painted the decision as a grudging but realistic one based on a stalemate in Congress over the issue. "Our more nuanced message will not sell as well as the 'tough on crime' opposition message in an age of sound bites," the report read. [Politico]


What an ugly quote and a rare glimpse inside the twisted thought processes that have allowed our worst mistakes to endure for so many shameful years. It's just sickening to think that some of the drug war's most racist policies might have been fixed more than a decade ago if spineless advisors like Kagan hadn't put politics ahead of equal justice.

In purely political terms, they might have been right – sentencing reform took several more years to gain sufficient momentum – but do we want this sort of callous and calculating partisan operative deciding who is and is not protected under the U.S. Constitution?

Update: I edited the post to make it clear that Kagan was part of a group which made this recommendation, and wasn't solely responsible for it herself. A wise colleague pointed out to me that it's possible she didn't even agree with the position of the group. In the context of the Politico story, it's clear she made a lot of politically motivated decisions at that time, but I could be off-base in blaming her personally for recommending this position on the sentencing disparity.

Feature: Obama's First National Drug Strategy -- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

A leaked draft of the overdue 2010 National Drug Strategy was published by Newsweek over the weekend, and it reveals some positive shifts away from Bush-era drug policy paradigms and toward more progressive and pragmatic approaches. But there is a lot of continuity as well, and despite the Obama administration's rhetorical shift away from the "war on drugs," the drug war juggernaut is still rolling along.

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sign of the leaker?
That doesn't quite jibe with Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) director Gil Kerlikowske's words when he announced in April 2009 that the phrase "war on drugs" was no longer in favor. "Regardless of how you try to explain to people it's a 'war on drugs' or a 'war on a product,' people see a war as a war on them. We're not at war with people in this country."

The leak was reported by long-time Washington insider and Newsweek columnist Michael Isikoff, who mentioned it almost off-handedly in a piece asserting "The White House Drug Czar's Diminished Status." Isikoff asserted in the piece that the unveiling of the strategy had been delayed because Kerlikowske didn't have the clout to get President Obama to schedule a joint appearance to release it. His office had been downgraded from cabinet level, Isikoff noted.

That sparked an angry retort from UCLA professor Mark Kleiman, a burr under the saddle to prohibitionists and anti-prohibitionists alike for his heterodox views on drug policy. In a blog post, Kleiman seemed personally offended at the leak, twice referring to the leaker as "a jerk," defending the new drug strategy as innovative if bound by interagency politics, and deriding Isikoff's article as "gossipy."

Kleiman also suggested strongly that the leaker was none other than former John Walters on the basis of an editing mark on the document that had his name on it. But Walters has not confirmed that, and others have point out it could have been a current staffer who is using the same computer Walters used while in office.

On the plus side, the draft strategy embraces some harm reduction programs, such as needle exchanges and the use of naloxone to prevent overdoses, although without ever uttering the words "harm reduction." There is also a renewed emphasis on prevention and treatment, with slight spending increases. But again reality fails to live up to rhetoric, with overall federal drug control spending maintaining the long-lived 2:1 ration in spending for law enforcement, eradication, and interdiction versus that for treatment and prevention.

The strategy also promotes alternatives to incarceration, such drug courts, community courts and the like and for the first time hints that it recognizes the harms that can be caused by the punitive approach to drug policy. And it explicitly calls for reform of the sentencing disparity for crack and powder cocaine offenses.

It sets a number of measurable goals related to reducing drug use. By 2015, ONDCP vows to cut last month drug use by young adults by 10% and cut last month use by teens, lifetime use by 8th graders, and the number of chronic drug users by 15%.

The 2010 goals of a 15% reduction reflect diminishing expectations after years of more ambitious drug use reduction goals followed by the drug policy establishment's inability to achieve them. That could inoculate the Obama administration from the kind of criticism faced by the Clinton administration back in the 1990s when it did set much more ambitious goals.

The Clinton administration's 1998 National Drug Control Strategy called for a "ten-year conceptual framework to reduce drug use and drug availability by 50%." That didn't happen. That strategy put the number of drug users at 13.5 million, but instead of decreasing, according to the 2008 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse and Health, by 2007 the number of drug users was at 20.1 million.

While Clinton took criticism from Republicans that his goals were not ambitious enough -- Newt Gingrich said we should just wipe out drugs -- the Bush administration set similar goals, and achieved similarly modest results. The Bush administration's 2002 National Drug Control Strategy sought a 25% reduction in drug use by both teenagers and adults within five years. While teen drug use declined from 11.6% in 2002 to 9.3% in 2007, then drug czar Walters missed his goal. He did less well with adult use almost unchanged, at 6.3% in 2000 and 5.9% in 2007.

The draft strategy, however, remains wedded to law enforcement, eradication, and interdiction, calls for strong federal support for local drug task forces, and explicitly rejects marijuana legalization. It also seeks to make drugged driving a top priority, which would be especially problematic if the administration adopts per se zero tolerance measures (meaning the presence of any metabolites of a controlled substance could result in a driver's arrest whether he was actually impaired or not).

Still, while the draft strategy is definitely a mixed bag, a pair of keen observers of ONDCP and federal drug policy pronounced themselves fairly pleased overall. While still heavy on the law enforcement side, the first Obama national drug strategy is a far cry from the propaganda-driven documents of Bush era drug czar John Walters.

The Good

"This is somewhat of a surprise, because for the first time they have included reducing the funds associated with the drug war in their strategy, although not in a big way, they're calling for reform of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, and they are calling for the reform of laws that penalize people," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "This is the first time they've included anything recognizing that some of our policies are creating harm," he added.

"The stuff about syringe exchange and naloxone for overdose prevention is pretty good. It's the first time they've embraced any part of harm reduction, even though they don't use that name," Piper noted.

"I'm also impressed with the section on alternatives to incarceration," said Piper. "They basically said most drug users don't belong in jail, and a lot of dealers don't, either. It's still wedded to the criminal justice system, but it's good that they looked at so many different things -- drug courts, community courts, Operation Highpoint (warning dealers to desist instead of just arresting them as a means of breaking up open-air drug markets), programs for veterans. They seem interested in finding out what works, which is an evidence-based approach that had been lacking in previous strategies."

The Status Quo

"Drug war reformers have eagerly been waiting the release of President Obama's first National Drug Control Strategy," noted Matthew Robinson, professor of Government and Justice Studies at Appalachian State University and coauthor (with Renee Scherlen) of "Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics: A Critical Analysis of Claims Made by the ONDCP." "Would it put Obama's and Kerlikowske's words into action, or would it be more of the same in terms of federal drug control policy? The answer is yes. And no. There is real, meaningful, exciting change proposed in the 2010 Strategy. But there's a lot of the status quo, too," he said.

"The first sentence of the Strategy hints at status quo approaches to federal drug control policy; it announces 'a blueprint for reducing illicit drug use and its harmful consequences in America,'" Robinson said. "That ONDCP will still focus on drug use (as opposed to abuse) is unfortunate, for the fact remains that most drug use is normal, recreational, pro-social, and even beneficial to users; it does not usually lead to bad outcomes for users, including abuse or addiction," he said.

"Just like under the leadership of Director John Walters, Kerlikowske's ONDCP characterizes its drug control approaches as 'balanced,' yet FY 2011 federal drug control spending is still imbalanced in favor of supply side measures (64%), while the demand side measures of treatment and prevention will only receive 36% of the budget," Robinson pointed out. "In FY 2010, the percentages were 65% and 35%, respectively. Perhaps when Barack Obama said 'Change we can believe in,' what he really meant was 'Change you can believe in, one percentage point at a time.'"

There is also much of the status quo in funding levels, Robinson said. "There will also be plenty of drug war funding left in this 'non-war on drugs.' For example, FY 2011 federal drug control spending includes $3.8 billion for the Department of Homeland Security (which includes Customs and Border Protection spending), more than $3.4 billion for the Department of Justice (which includes Drug Enforcement Agency spending), and nearly $1.6 billion for the Department of Defense (which includes military spending). Thus, the drug war will continue on under President Obama even if White House officials do not refer to federal drug control policy as a 'war on drugs,'" he noted.

The Bad

"ONDCP repeatedly stresses the importance of reducing supply of drugs into the United States through crop eradication and interdiction efforts, international collaboration, disruption of drug smuggling organizations, and so forth," Robinson noted. "It still promotes efforts like Plan Colombia, the Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy, and many other similar programs aimed at eradicating drugs in foreign countries and preventing them from entering the United States. The bottom line here is that the 'non war on drugs' will still look and feel like a war on drugs under President Obama, especially to citizens of the foreign nations where the United States does the bulk of its drug war fighting."

"They are still wedded to interdiction and eradication," said Piper. "There is no recognition that they aren't very effective and do more harm than good. Coming only a couple of weeks after the drug czar testified under oath that eradication in Colombia and Afghanistan and elsewhere had no impact on the availability of drugs in the US, to then put out a strategy embracing what he said was least effective is quite disturbing."

"The ringing endorsement of per se standards for drugged driving is potentially troubling," said Piper. "It looks a lot like zero tolerance. We have to look at this also in the context of new performance measures, which are missing from the draft. In the introduction, they talk about setting goals for reducing drug use and that they went to set other performance measures, such as for reducing drug overdoses and drugged driving. If they actually say they're going to reduce drugged driving by such and such an amount with a certain number of years, that will be more important. We'll have to see what makes it into the final draft."

"They took a gratuitous shot at marijuana reform," Piper noted. "It was unfortunate they felt the need to bash something that half of Americans support and to do it in the way they did, listing a litany of Reefer Madness allegations and connecting marijuana to virtually every problem in America. That was really unfortunate."

More Good

There are some changes in spending priorities. "Spending on prevention will grow 13.4% from FY 2010 to FY 2011, while spending on treatment will grow 3.7%," Robinson noted. "The growth in treatment is surprisingly small given that ONDCP notes that 90% of people who need treatment do not receive it. Increases are much smaller for spending on interdiction (an increase of 2.4%), domestic law enforcement (an increase of 1.9%), and international spending (an increase of 0.9%). This is evidence of a shift in federal drug control strategy under President Obama; there will be a greater effort to prevent drug use in the first place as well as treat those that become addicted to drugs than there ever was under President Bush."

Robinson also lauded the Obama administration for more clarity in the strategy than was evident under either Clinton or Bush. "Obama's first Strategy clearly states its guiding principles, each of which is followed by a specific set of actions to be initiated and implemented over time to achieve goals and objectives related to its principles. Of course, this is Obama's first Strategy, so in subsequent years, there will be more data presented for evaluation purposes, and it should become easier to decipher the ideology that will drive the 'non war on drugs' under President Obama," he said.

But he suggested that ideology still plays too big a role. "ONDCP hints at its ideology when it claims that programs such as 'interdiction, anti-trafficking initiatives, drug crop reduction, intelligence sharing and partner nation capacity building... have proven effective in the past.' It offers almost no evidence that this is the case other than some very limited, short-term data on potential cocaine production in Colombia. ONDCP claims it is declining, yet only offers data from 2007 to 2008. Kerlikowske's ONDCP seems ready to accept the dominant drug war ideology of Walters that supply side measures work -- even when long-term data show they do not."

Robinson also lauded ONDCP's apparent revelation that drug addiction is a disease. "Obama's first strategy embraces a new approach to achieving federal drug control goals of 'reducing illicit drug consumption' and 'reducing the consequences of illicit drug use in the United States,' one that is evidence-based and public health oriented," Robinson said. "ONDCP recognizes that drug addiction is a disease and it specifies that federal drug control policy should be assisted by parties in all of the systems that relate to drug use and abuse, including families, schools, communities, faith-based organizations, the medical profession, and so forth. This is certainly a change from the Bush Administration, which repeatedly characterized drug use as a moral or personal failing."

While the Obama drug strategy may have its faults, said Robinson, it is a qualitative improvement over Bush era drug strategies. "Under the Bush Administration, ONDCP came across as downright dismissive of data, evidence, and science, unless it was used to generate fear and increased punitive responses to drug-related behaviors. Honestly, there is very little of this in Obama's first strategy, aside from the usual drugs produce crime, disorder, family disruption, illness, addiction, death, and terrorism argument that has for so long been employed by ONDCP," he said. "Instead, the Strategy is hopeful in tone and lays out dozens of concrete programs and policies that aim to prevent drug use among young people (through public education programs, mentoring initiatives, increasing collaboration between public health and safety organizations); treat adults who have developed drug abuse and addiction problems (though screening and intervention by medical personnel, increased investments in addiction treatment, new treatment medications); and, for the first time, invest heavily in recovery efforts that are restorative in nature and aimed at giving addicts a new lease on life," he noted.

"ONDCP also seems to suddenly have a better grasp on why the vast majority of people who need treatment do not get it," said Robinson. "Under Walters, ONDCP claimed that drug users were in denial and needed to be compassionately coerced to seek treatment. In the 2010 Strategy, ONDCP outlines numerous problems with delivery of treatment services including problems with the nation's health care systems generally. The 2010 Strategy seems so much better informed about the realities of drug treatment than previous Strategy reports," he added.

"The strategy also repeatedly calls for meaningful change in areas such as alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent, low-level drug offenders; drug testing in courts (and schools, unfortunately, in spite of data showing it is ineffective); and reentry programs for inmates who need help finding jobs and places to live upon release from prison or jail. ONDCP also implicitly acknowledges that that federal drug control policy imposes costs on families (including the break-up of families), and shows with real data that costs are greater economically for imprisonment of mothers and foster care for their children than family-based treatment," Robinson noted.

"ONDCP makes the case that we are wasting a lot of money dealing with the consequences of drug use and abuse when this money would be better spent preventing use and abuse in the first place. Drug policy reformers will embrace this claim," Robinson predicted.

"The strategy also calls for a renewed emphasis on prescription drug abuse, which it calls 'the fastest growing drug problem in the United States,'" Robinson pointed out. "Here, as in the past, ONDCP suggests regulation is the answer because prescription drugs have legitimate uses that should not be restricted merely because some people use them illegally. And, as in the past, ONDCP does not consider this approach for marijuana, which also has legitimate medicinal users in spite of the fact that some people use it illegally," he said.

The Verdict

"President Obama's first National Drug Control Strategy offers real, meaningful, exciting change," Robinson summed up. "Whether this change amounts to 'change we can believe in' will be debated by drug policy reformers. For those who support demand side measures, many will embrace the 2010 Strategy and call for even greater funding for prevention and treatment. For those who support harm reduction measures such as needled exchange, methadone maintenance and so forth, there will be celebration. Yet, for those who support real alternatives to federal drug control policy such as legalization or decriminalization, all will be disappointed. And even if Obama officials will not refer to its drug control policies as a 'war on drugs,' they still amount to just that."

Feature: Drug Czar Gets Grilled on "New Directions in Drug Policy" By Skeptical Solons, Activists, and Academics

Gil Kerlikowske, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), testified on Capitol Hill Wednesday that the Obama administration is seeking "a new direction in drug policy," but was challenged both by lawmakers and by a panel of academics and activists on the point during the same hearing. The action took place at a hearing of the House Domestic Policy Subcommittee in which the ONDCP drug budget and the forthcoming 2010 National Drug Strategy were the topics at hand.

The hearing comes in the wake of various drug policy reforms enacted by the Obama administration, including a Justice Department policy memo directing US attorneys and the DEA to lay off medical marijuana in states where it is legal, the removal of the federal ban on needle exchange funding, and administration support for ending or reducing the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenders.

But it also comes in the wake of the announcement of the ONDCP 2011 drug budget, which at $15.5 billion is up more than $500 million from this year. While treatment and prevention programs got a 6.5% funding increase, supply reduction (law enforcement, interdiction, and eradication) continues to account for almost exactly the same percentage of the overall budget -- 64%--as it did in the Bush administration. Only 36% is earmarked for demand reduction (prevention and treatment).

Citing health care costs from drug use and rising drug overdose death figures, the nation "needs to discard the idea that enforcement alone can eliminate our nation's drug problem," Kerlikowske said. "Only through a comprehensive and balanced approach -- combining tough, but fair, enforcement with robust prevention and treatment efforts -- will we be successful in stemming both the demand for and supply of illegal drugs in our country."

So far, at least, when it comes to reconfiguring US drug control efforts, Kerlikowske and the Obama administration are talking the talk, but they're not walking the walk. That was the contention of subcommittee chair Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and several of the session's panelists.

"Supply side spending has not been effective," said Kucinich, challenging the budget breakdown.

"Supply side spending is important for a host of reasons, whether we're talking about eradication or our international partners where drugs are flowing," replied the drug czar.

"Where's the evidence?" Kucinich demanded. "Describe with statistics what evidence you have that this approach is effective."

Kerlikowske was reduced to citing the case of Colombia, where security and safety of the citizenry has increased. But he failed to mention that despite about $4 billion in US anti-drug aid in the past decade, Colombian coca and cocaine production remain at high levels.

"What parts of your budget are most effective?" asked Kucinich.

"The most cost-effective approaches would be prevention and treatment," said Kerlikowske.

"What percentage is supply and what percentage is demand oriented?" asked Rep. Jim Jordan (D-OH).

"It leans much more toward supply, toward interdiction and enforcement," Kerlikowske conceded.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) was more old school, demanding a tougher response to Mexico's wave of prohibition-related violence and questioning the decision not to eradicate opium in Afghanistan. "The Southwest border is critical. I would hope the administration would give you the resources you need for a Plan Colombia on steroids," said Issa.

"There is no eradication program in Afghanistan," Issa complained. "I was in areas we did control and we did nothing about eradication."

"I don't think anyone is comfortable seeing US forces among the poppy fields," Kerlikowske replied. "Ambassador Holbrooke has taken great pains to explain the rationale for that," he added, alluding to Holbrooke's winning argument that eradication would push poppy farming peasants into the hands of the Taliban.

"The effectiveness of eradication seems to be near zero, which is very interesting from a policy point of view," interjected Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL).

Kucinich challenged Kerlikowske about harm reduction. "At the UN, you said the US supported many interventions, but you said that, 'We do not use the phrase harm reduction.' You are silent on both syringe exchange programs and the issue of harm reduction interventions generally," he noted. "Do you acknowledge that these interventions can be effective in reducing death and disease, does your budget proposed to fund intervention programs that have demonstrated positive results in drug overdose deaths, and what is the basis of your belief that the term harm reduction implies promotion of drug use?"

Kerlikowske barely responded. "We don't use the term harm reduction because it is in the eye of the beholder," he said. "People talk about it as if it were legalization, but personally, I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about whether to put a definition on it."

When challenged by Kucinich specifically about needle exchange programs, Kerlikowske conceded that they can be effective. "If they are part of a comprehensive drug reduction effort, they make a lot of sense," he said.

The grilling of Kerlikowske took up the first hour of the two-hour session. The second hour consisted of testimony from Drug Policy Alliance executive director Ethan Nadelmann, Brookings Institute foreign policy fellow and drugs and counterinsurgency expert Vanda Felbab-Brown, former ONDCP employee and drug policy analyst John Carnevale, and University of Maryland drug policy expert Peter Reuter. It didn't get any better for drug policy orthodoxy.

"Let me be frank," said Nadelmann as he began his testimony. "We regard US drug policy as a colossal failure, a gross violation of human rights and common sense," he said, citing the all too familiar statistics about arrests, incarceration, the spread of HIV/AIDS, and drug overdose deaths. "All of these are an egregious violation of fundamental American values."

"Congress and the Obama administration have broken with the costly and failed drug war strategies of the past in some important ways," said Nadelmann. "But the continuing emphasis on interdiction and law enforcement in the federal drug war budget suggest that ONDCP is far more wedded to the failures of the past than to any new vision for the future. I urge this committee to hold ONDCP and federal drug policy accountable to new criteria that focus on reductions in the death, disease, crime and suffering associated with both drugs and drug prohibition."

Nadelmann identified four problems with current drug strategy:

  • The drug war's flawed performance measures;
  • The lop-sided ratio between supply and demand spending in the national drug budget;
  • The lack of innovation in the drug czar's proposed strategies;
  • The administration's failure to adequately evaluate drug policies.

"They want to move toward a public health model that focuses on reducing demand for drugs, but no drug policy will succeed unless there are the resources to implement it," said Carnevale. "Past budgets emphasizing supply reduction failed to produce results, and our drug policy stalled -- there has been no change in overall drug use in this decade."

Carnevale noted that the 2011 ONDCP budget gave the largest percentage increase to prevention and treatment, but that its priorities were still skewed toward supply reduction. "The budget continues to over-allocate funds where they are least effective, in interdiction and source country programs."

"The drug trade poses multiple and serious threats, ranging from threats to security and the legal economy to threats to legality and political processes," said Felbab-Brown, "but millions of people depend on the illegal drug trade for a livelihood. There is no hope supply-side policies can disrupt the global drug trade."

Felbab-Brown said she was "encouraged" that the Obama administration had shifted toward a state-building approach in Afghanistan, but that she had concerns about how policy is being operationalized there. "We need to adopt the right approach to sequencing eradication in Afghanistan," she said. "Alternative livelihoods and state-building need to be comprehensive, well-funded, and long-lasting, and not focused on replacing the poppy crop."

"Eradication in Afghanistan has little effect on domestic supply and reduction," said Kucinich. "Should these kinds of programs be funded?"

"I am quite convinced that spending money for eradication, especially aerial eradication, is not effective," replied Carnevale. "The point of eradication in Colombia was to reduce the amount of drugs coming into the US, but I see no such effect."

"We're dealing with global commodity markets," said Nadelmann. "If one source is knocked out, someone else will pop up. What's missing is any sort of strategic analysis or planning. If you accept that these drugs are going to be produced, you need to manage it to reduce the harms."

"The history of the last 20 years of the cocaine and heroin trade shows how much mobility there is in cultivation and trafficking," said Reuter. "What we do has a predictable effect. When we pushed down on trafficking in Florida, that lead to increases in Mexico. The evidence is striking that all we are doing is moving the trade."

Times are changing in Washington. What was once unassailable drug war orthodoxy is not under direct assault, and not just from activists and academics, but among members of Congress itself. But while the drug czar talks the happy talk about "new directions in drug policy," the Obama administration -- with some notable exceptions -- looks to still have a drug policy on cruise control.

Congress: Senate Passes Bill to Reduce, But Not Eliminate, Crack/Powder Sentencing Disparity

The US Senate approved on a voice vote Wednesday a bill that would reduce, but not eliminate, the disparity in sentences handed down to people convicted of crack versus powder cocaine charges. The bill championed by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), S. 1789, would reduce the current, much maligned, 100:1 ratio to 18:1.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/capitolsenateside.jpg
Senate disappoints
Under current law, it takes only five grams of crack cocaine to earn a mandatory minimum five-year federal prison sentence, but 500 grams of powder cocaine to garner the same sentence. The law has been especially devastating in black communities, which make up about 30% of all crack consumers, but account for more than 80% of all federal crack prosecutions. Under the bill passes by the Senate, it would now take an ounce of crack for the mandatory minimums to kick in.

Durbin's bill originally called for completely eliminating the sentencing disparity, but was stalled until a Senate gym meeting between Durbin and opposition Judiciary Committee heavy-hitters Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL). After that informal confab, the bill was amended to 18:1 and passed unanimously last week by the committee.

A bill in the House by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) that would completely eliminate the disparity by the simple act of eliminating all references to crack in the federal statute, HR 3245, passed out of the House Judiciary Committee last July, but has not come to a floor vote. Now that the Senate has approved its bill, pressure will be on the House to just approve the Senate version.

Sen. Durbin told the Associated Press that while he had originally sought to completely eliminate the disparity, the final bill was a good compromise. "If this bill is enacted into law, it will immediately ensure that every year, thousands of people are treated more fairly in our criminal justice system," he said.

Durbin added that the harsher treatment of crack offenders combined with federal prosecutors' predilection for disproportionately going after black crack offenders had eroded respect for the law. "Law enforcement experts say that the crack-powder disparity undermines trust in the criminal justice system, especially in the African-American community."

But drug reformers and civil rights groups that had pushed for complete elimination of the sentencing disparity had a definitely mixed reaction to the Senate vote. It was progress, but not enough, they said.

"We strongly supported Sen. Durbin's bill, which would have completely eliminated the disparity," said Wade Henderson, head of the Leadership Council for Civil and Human Rights in a statement Wednesday. Adding that the group was "disappointed" that disparities remain, Henderson said that "this legislation represents progress, but not the end of the fight."

"Today is a bittersweet day," said Jasmine Tyler of the Drug Policy Alliance in a Wednesday statement. "On one hand, we've moved the issue of disparate sentencing for two forms of the same drug forward, restoring some integrity to our criminal justice system. But, on the other hand, the Senate, by reducing the 100:1 disparity to 18:1, instead of eliminating it, has proven how difficult it is to ensure racial justice, even in 2010."

Senate Passes Bill to Reduce, But Not Eliminate, Crack/Powder Sentencing Disparity

The US Senate approved on a voice vote Wednesday a bill that would reduce, but not eliminate, the disparity in sentences handed down to people convicted of crack versus powder cocaine charges. The bill championed by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), SB 1789 would reduce the current, much maligned, 100:1 ratio to 18:1. Under current law, it takes only five grams of crack cocaine to earn a mandatory minimum five-year federal prison sentence, but 500 grams of powder cocaine to garner the same sentence. The law has been especially devastating in black communities, which make up about 30% of all crack consumers, but account for more than 80% of all federal crack prosecutions. Under the bill passes by the Senate, it would now take an ounce of crack for the mandatory minimums to kick in. Durbin's bill originally called for completely eliminating the sentencing disparity, but was stalled until a Senate gym meeting between Durbin and opposition Judiciary Committee heavy-hitters Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL). After that informal confab, the bill was amended to 18:1 and passed unanimously last week by the committee. A bill in the House by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) that would completely eliminate the disparity by the simple act of eliminating all references to crack in the federal statute, HR 3245, passed out of the House Judiciary Committee last July, but has not come to a floor vote. Now that the Senate has approved its bill, pressure will be on the House to just approve the Senate version. Sen. Durbin told the Associated Press that while he had originally sought to completely eliminate the disparity, the final bill was a good compromise. "If this bill is enacted into law, it will immediately ensure that every year, thousands of people are treated more fairly in our criminal justice system," he said. Durbin added that the harsher treatment of crack offenders combined with federal prosecutors' predilection for disproportionately going after black crack offenders had eroded respect for the law. "Law enforcement experts say that the crack-powder disparity undermines trust in the criminal justice system, especially in the African-American community." But drug reformers and civil rights groups that had pushed for complete elimination of the sentencing disparity had a definitely mixed reaction to the Senate vote. It was progress, but not enough, they said. "We strongly supported Sen. Durbin's bill, which would have completely eliminated the disparity," said Wade Henderson, head of the Leadership Council for Civil and Human Rights in a statement Wednesday. Adding that the group was "disappointed" that disparities remain, Henderson said that "this legislation represents progress, but not the end of the fight." "Today is a bittersweet day," said Jasmine Tyler of the Drug Policy Alliance in a Wednesday statement. "On one hand, we’ve moved the issue of disparate sentencing for two forms of the same drug forward, restoring some integrity to our criminal justice system. But, on the other hand, the Senate, by reducing the 100:1 disparity to 18:1, instead of eliminating it, has proven how difficult it is to ensure racial justice, even in 2010."
Location: 
Washington, DC
United States

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