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Drug Czar Opposes Effort to Reduce Drug Overdoses

The Office of National Drug Control Policy hates harm reduction. It's strange because they're supposed to be helping people with drug problems and yet all they ever do is defend the government's authority to punish and injure these very people. Not only that, but they actually go out of their way to oppose programs that prioritize saving lives over making drug arrests.

Predictably, therefore, ONDCP was quick to attack an effort to reduce drug overdoses in San Francisco by opening a safe injection site. As usual, their arguments aren't even related to the topic at hand:
Proposed "Safe-Injection" Site in San Francisco Ignores Proven Solutions to Treating Drug Addicts

Drug treatment works. How do we know? Today, there are millions of millions of Americans successfully recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. These courageous Americans are living proof that effective drug treatment can save lives and reduce our national drug problem.

That's why it's so troubling to see this…
It shouldn't even be necessary to point out that the effectiveness of drug treatment has nothing to do with safe injection. The idea here is to keep at-risk users alive long enough to get them into treatment. These programs create a vital point of contact for connecting users to medical professionals and treatment options.

ONDCP's childish protestations simply overflow with unintended irony:
Indeed, no one proposes aiding and sustaining an alcoholic by providing a supervised site for alcohol use.
Um, what? These supervised sites are called "bars," and no one ever gets alcohol poisoning at them. Alcohol poisoning is the hallmark of unsupervised parties where inexperienced underage drinkers consume surreptitiously. The circumstances under which drugs – be they alcohol or heroin – are consumed has everything to do with the relative safety of the user. What a simple concept that is.

But, as is often the case in the debate with ONDCP, the question is not what they understand, but rather what they really care about. To the Drug Czar, harm reduction is an "approach that accepts defeat." ONDCP only cares about reducing drug use. If drugs are used, then they feel "defeated," regardless of whether lives are saved.

For everyone else, "defeat" isn't defined solely by the frequency with which hits of dope are jacked into the veins of some bright-eyed youngster. Defeat is when that person's life is turned upside down, when they get sick, when they share a needle, when their lifeless body is found crumpled and cold on a park bench.

Preventing these things is the goal of the harm reduction community. It is an achievable goal, and those who stand in the way become apologists for disease, decay, and death.
United States

DEA Director Resigns, Says She Had an Awesome Time

DEA Administrator Karen Tandy announced her resignation today, marking her 4-year tenure with another trademark Tandyism:
"It just doesn't get any better than this," Tandy said in a statement about her time at DEA. [Washington Post]
Well, at least somebody had a good time. Now Tandy is moving into the telecom industry:
Tandy told employees she was leaving to take a job as a senior vice president of Motorola, DEA spokesman Garrison Courtney said. Motorola is a leading sponsor of a DEA traveling museum exhibit about global drug trafficking and terrorism…

Did you guys hear that? Motorola is a major private funder of insidious drug war propaganda and decorates its highest offices with exhausted anti-drug soldiers. Let's all make a mental note of how socially conscious this company is.

In the meantime, I would encourage the Bush administration to takes its sweet time finding exactly the right replacement for her. Formerly a DOJ prosecutor, Tandy rose to fame by successfully taking down menace-to-society Tommy Chong for selling water bongs. She was appointed to DEA's top office forthwith.

In light of the Bush administration's already notorious difficulties filling the vacant directorships of various federal agencies, let me offer a couple possible replacements:

Assistant U.S. Attorney George Bevan is a hardcore drug war legal genius who fought for 5 years to get Ed Rosenthal a one-day sentence for supplying marijuana to sick people. Bevan is so aggressive that U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer had to throw out some charges and accuse him of malicious prosecution.

Better yet, former Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty prosecuted the totally-innocent pain management doctor William Hurwitz and was subsequently forced to resign in the U.S. Attorney firings scandal. If you need the law mutilated for political ends, this guy is a total pro.

Ultimately, finding qualified applicants to head the DEA shouldn't be too hard considering how famously delightful it is to work there.

United States

Someone Tell the Drug Czar That Hemp Isn't a Drug

The brave drug warriors at ONDCP need so much help. They are just as confused as can be about so many things, but they wear industrial strength earplugs and never go on the internet except to periodically blog about how confused they are. It would be funny if they weren't destroying America.

So anyone who still thinks these people are serious should visit the Drug Czar's blog right away and read his recent post, "Terminated! Gov. Schwarzenegger Vetoes Pro-Drug Hemp Bill." It is downright delusional; a perfect encapsulation of the thinly-veiled psychosis that festers beneath the skin of the powerful Drug War Experts in Washington D.C.
While drug legalization groups extol hemp as some kind of miracle-plant, many Americans aren’t getting the full story. Industrial hemp and marijuana are not just "related" – they come from the same cannabis sativa plant.

The real agenda of hemp enthusiasts is to legalize smoked marijuana and it is no coincidence that legalizing hemp would complicate efforts to curb the production and use of smoked marijuana by young people.
Now, I could explain that hemp actually is a useful plant. I could propose that a hemp bill can't be "pro-drug" because hemp isn't a drug. I could point out that the farmers who want to grow it don't care about marijuana legalization. I could argue that Americans already know it's a type of marijuana. And I could even prove that you can't grow commercial marijuana anywhere near it due to cross-pollination.

But that would be pointless, because the Drug Czar doesn't care about these things. All he cares about is that marijuana legalization advocates sometimes participate in criticizing U.S. hemp policy, and if those people want hemp, he will burn to the ground every damned stalk until they pry the flamethrower from his shriveled dead hands.

In fact, as a marijuana legalization advocate, I should maybe shut up about this, lest I fuel the Drug Czar's deranged fantasy that people who want to make pants and granola bars are actually part of a diabolical conspiracy to turn California into the world's biggest rehab clinic.
United States

Drug Treatment: GAO Study Reveals Abuse Allegations, Deaths at Residential Treatment Programs

The first federal look at "boot camps," wilderness programs, and similar programs aimed at troubled youth, including those sent away because of drug use, has found widespread allegations of abuse at such facilities. The Government Accountability Office study released Wednesday also examined 10 cases where teens died in those programs.

According to the study, in 2005 alone, 1,619 allegations of abuse were made against such residential treatment facilities. "GAO could not identify a more concrete number of allegations because it could not locate a single Web site, federal agency, or other entity that collects comprehensive nationwide data," the report noted.

The privately operated programs may or may not be subject to state regulation, depending on the state. There are no federal rules governing residential facilities for youth, something Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, may be preparing to change, but not quite yet.

"This nightmare has remained an open secret for years," Miller said in a statement. "Congress must act, and it must act swiftly." He has sponsored a bill designed to encourage states to enact regulations.

The GAO examined 10 cases between 1990 and 2004 where teens died at those facilities. Three of the victims were placed in the facilities by their parents because of their drug use.

In one case, a 16-year-old girl was sent to wilderness survival school because of depression and her parent's fears about her drug use. Her parents paid $25,000 to the facility operators, and $4,000 more to a "transportation service" who dragged her from her bed at 4am and deposited her in the middle of a hike in the Utah desert. The girl died three days later of heatstroke.

In the second drug treatment-related fatality, a 16-year-old boy was sent to a wilderness survival school because of his parents' concern about "minor drug use, academic underachievement, and association with a new peer group that was having a negative impact on him." He died of a perforated ulcer 31 days into the 90-day, $18,000 program after program staff ignored his repeated collapses and pleas for help.

In the third case, a 15-year-girl placed in a wilderness program because of a history of drug use and mental problems died of dehydration and heat exhaustion before her parents even made it back home. When they arrived upon their return from dropping off their daughter, a phone message from the facility awaited them. There had been an accident, the message said. But instead, the girl died after repeatedly collapsing on a strenuous hike.

Each year thousands of teenagers are referred for drug treatment, even after being caught once smoking marijuana. The drug czar uses teen drug treatment figures to argue that marijuana is a serious problem, but doesn't mention that most teens "seeking" treatment for marijuana are ordered there by courts or schools. Nor does he mention that when it comes to treatment facilities like those examined by the GAO, the cure can be infinitely worse than the disease.

Southwest Asia: US Turns Up the Pressure to Spray Poppy Fields, Afghan Government Resists -- So Far

US drug warriors have long wanted to unleash herbicidal sprays as a weapon to put a dent in Afghanistan's burgeoning opium poppy crop, but the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai -- along with a number of NATO allies -- has staunchly resisted American entreaties. In the wake of the country's record-breaking opium harvest this year, however, the Americans are turning up the pressure, but so far to no avail.

the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
Afghanistan produced 93% of the global opium supply this year, and is increasingly exporting refined heroin as well as raw opium, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. While the Afghan government has undertaken manual eradication campaigns, they have been of limited effectiveness, reaching less than 10% of the crop this year.

For the Americans, eradicating the poppy crop is a key goal in Afghanistan, not only for traditional drug policy reasons, but also because some of the profits from the crop, estimated at $3 billion this year, end up financing the Taliban insurgency via taxes the rebels impose on farmers and merchants.

But for the Karzai administration, as well as some NATO countries with troops on the ground in Afghanistan, and some surprising elements of the US government including the Pentagon and the CIA, a massive aerial eradication campaign runs the risk of destabilizing the Afghan government by alienating farmers and pushing them into the waiting arms of the Taliban. The Afghan government has also raised health and environmental concerns about the widespread use of chemical herbicides, particularly glyphosate, or Roundup, which is the poison the Americans are pushing.

For at least two years, a cavalcade of top American officials, including President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, national security advisor Stephen Hadley, and drug czar John Walters, have met with Karzai to try to convince him to change his stance -- to no avail. In April of this year, the Bush administration named William Wood the new ambassador to Kabul, fresh off a four-year stint as ambassador to Colombia, scene of the largest US-backed aerial eradication campaign against a drug crop. In August, US officials began turning up the heat.

"Aerial eradication is undoubtedly the most effective way," Thomas Schweich, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, told a news conference in Kabul in August. "You go in, you get large blocks of land in a very short period of time. You do it with minimal loss of life, since you don't have to fight your way in and you don't have to fight your way out. You don't ever negotiate with anybody," he said.

"We are working to convince the key ministers and President Karzai to accept this strategy," a US official "who asked not to be identified because of the issue's political sensitivity" told the New York Times this week. "We want to convince them to show some power. The government has to show its power in the remote provinces."

This weekend, State Department officials took the unusual step of sending one of its top crop-eradication experts to Kabul to attempt to persuade the Afghan government that glyphosate is safe. The expert, Charles Helling, a senior scientific adviser to the department's bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, met with Afghan officials who have publicly opposed the use of herbicides to wipe out the poppy crop.

"He is here to explain what it is and how it works. He is here to discuss the science of glyphosate, not to persuade anyone they should be spraying from planes or anything," an unnamed embassy official told Reuters. But the implication was clear: Glyphosate is safe and should be adopted by the Afghan government.

But as of this week, the Afghans weren't buying. "We have rejected the spraying of poppy in Afghanistan for good reasons: the effect on the environment, other smaller crops and on human genetics," the acting minister for counter-narcotics, General Khodaidad, told the
Tuesday. "It was a very friendly discussion, but it is difficult to change our mind," he added. "We listened to their experts and they listened to our experts and they eventually accepted our position would not change. Our responsibility is to the people of Afghanistan."

Still, the pressure is on. There are hints the Karzai government may seek to alleviate some of it by okaying a limited ground spraying project this coming spring, but so far the Afghans are standing firm.

The Drug Czar's Blog Accidentally Admits That Drug Laws Ruin Lives

Yesterday, in a post titled "Random Drug Testing Can Save Lives," the Drug Czar once again blogged himself into a corner. The piece quotes extensively from a Kentucky newspaper article, which argues that random drug testing will save students from getting arrested:
"There was a tragedy in Scott County last week. A young man's future was ruined, and the events that took place will likely haunt him for the rest of his life.

Unless you've been on vacation, you've probably already heard that a superstar athlete on the Scott County basketball team was arrested on felony drug charges, which could result in him going to prison for as long as 10 years. [Georgetown News]

That's awful. But what does this have to do with random drug testing?

...Whether we realize it or not, the real tragedy is this young man wasn't caught sooner, through a less punitive program intended to help youthful offenders, not send them to prison. The greater tragedy, to my way of thinking, is that we, as a community and a school system, haven't seen fit to acknowledge reality and implement a random drug testing program in our high school, and perhaps our middle schools.

So what exactly did this young man do that could get him locked away for 10 years? He was arrested for 1.6 grams of crack on school grounds. Crack/powder sentencing disparity + school zone = 10 years for a one-day supply of drugs.

By conceding that this young man's life has been ruined, the Drug Czar does far more to indict our brutally unfair sentencing laws than to promote random drug testing. He is literally telling us that we should let him collect urine from our children, otherwise his drug soldiers will put them in jail for a decade.

And if that doesn't make your head spin, consider that cocaine leaves your system in 1-2 days and will rarely come up in a drug screen anyway. You can smoke crack all night on Friday and pass a drug test on Monday, so none of this whole insane conversation about saving people from crack laws with drug testing even makes sense to begin with.

United States

When The Drug Czar Says We're Winning The Drug War, It Means Nothing

The insufferable Robert Caldwell at Human Events writes love letters to the drug war. His latest masterpiece begs presidential hopefuls to entice him by sharing their most hardcore drug war fantasies.

Oddly, Caldwell tries to explain the urgency of the matter by claiming that everything's going phenomenally well. His entire argument consists of a tiresome series of Drug Czar quotes. "John Walters…begs to differ", "Walters offered a slew of statistics", "Walters argued, persuasively", "Walters rightly cites", "Walters notes," and on it goes. The whole thing might as well have been signed by John Walters under the title, "My Awesome Drug War."

Yet, as Pete Guither notes in a helpful new page, it is literally the job of the Drug Czar's office to distort facts in support of the drug war. The GAO even admits it:

Given this role, we do not see a need to examine the accuracy of the Deputy Director's individual statements in detail.

So we really can dispense with the notion that the Drug Czar is available to give us unvarnished assessments of drug war progress. It is, in fact, illegal for him to do that. Asking the Drug Czar how the drug war is going is like asking Colonel Sanders if his chicken is any good.

(This blog post was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

United States

Editorial: Yes, the Drug War Really is Still Failing, DEA and ONDCP

David Borden, Executive Director

David Borden
When the drug czar announced a few weeks ago that cocaine prices had gone up -- a sign of success in the drug war, so he claims -- I was surprised but not shocked. I was surprised -- slightly -- because in most years for the last few decades the price has dropped and dropped and dropped. Retail, or "street" cocaine prices are about 40% of what they were in the early 1980s, and that's without adjusting for inflation. Factor in inflation and it's closer to 20%, a five-fold decrease.

The reason I wasn't shocked is simply because within this steep, long-term decline, there have been upticks now and then, maybe once every four or so years. I was surprised in the way that one is surprised when flipping two coins and seeing both of them come up heads. Most of the time that doesn't happen -- you either get two tails, one is heads and the other tails, or the first one comes up tails and the second one comes up heads. But in one out of every four tries, on average both of them will come up heads.

I was surprised again on Wednesday, when I saw the same story come up a second time a few weeks later, this time in the Los Angeles Times. But not very surprised -- ONDCP and DEA have an obvious incentive to continue to pitch a story that seems favorable to them for as long as there's interest in it.

Unfortunately, the key word here is "seems." It certainly seems like a big jump when you read what they told the Times: "[T]he cost of cocaine increas[ed] 24%, from $95.89 to $118.70 per gram over the six-month period ending in June." Okay, but when looking at the DEA information sheet, one learns that that number is an average including all cocaine purchases during the time period, both wholesale (trafficker to dealer) and retail (seller to customer). The retail average -- the meaningful quantity when it comes to the end result -- went from $145.42 to $166.90, a lesser 15% increase.

Ultimately, price is not really the end result to judge the drug program, of course. The final result of importance, setting aside civil liberties issues, is the net harm to society of both drugs and drug policies. Driving up prices can lead to more crime, for example, and more of those who are addicted suffering financial destitution and driven to extreme circumstances. Price -- in this case, the adjusted price for a pure gram -- is considered a measure of a drug's availability -- the higher the price of the drug, the less available it is, and the fewer expected users. Or at least that's the theory. In this discussion, retail price is defined as purchases of up to 10 grams, the range used by the DEA in its STRIDE data collection program.

If so, it seems pretty silly to talk about prices rising over half a year to $167, in light of this:


(You'll notice I'm missing a few years. I had trouble finding 2001-2006 data online this morning. I'd appreciate if someone could point me in the right direction, and I'll post a complete chart back here then and in our blog. The price data is from the aforementioned STRIDE program, divided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Price Index figures.)

Given how small the street price of cocaine still is compared with the past, this recent news just doesn't seem to me like something to brag about. Also, the DEA's write-up says they analyzed data going back to April 2005, but only goes on to discuss what happened from December of last year. I wonder what that means.

Bottom line, when you're only presenting the last six months to reporters, after multiple decades of data show something different -- when you don't even present the entire time range that you analyzed in the very study you just completed, your argument is weak. Sorry, the drug war really is still failing, just like it always has.

You can learn more about the drug czars' data shenanigans by picking up a copy of "Lies, Damn Lies, and Drug War Statistics." Better yet, order one from us.

Update: Some good info on this from WOLA, and discussion in the Washington Post blog.

Latin America: US Plans to Supersize Mexico Drug War Aid -- $1.4 Billion Package in Works

Move over, Plan Colombia -- here comes Plan Mexico. Tucked into the Pentagon's massive budget request is at least $1.4 billion in anti-drug aid for Mexico, the Dallas Morning News reported Tuesday. The aid package, which would be spread over two-years according to the report, represents a nearly twenty-fold increase over current anti-drug aid levels, which are estimated at about $40 million this year.

cash carefully stacked for camera following bust last March by DEA and Mexican authorities
US and Mexican officials speaking off the record told the Morning News the two countries have agreed on the aid package, which will reportedly include better training and high-tech tools to combat the drug trafficking organizations that are engaged in bloody wars among themselves and with the Mexican government, but will not involve US troops.

According to the latest reports, some 2,000 people have been killed in drug prohibition-related violence in Mexico this year, eclipsing last year's toll of 1,900. Mexican President Felipe Calderon has responded vigorously, deploying more than 20,000 Mexican army troops in drug producing states and cities plagued by cartel violence. That move has been harshly criticized by the government's own human rights office, but welcomed in Washington as a sign of strength and commitment.

Officials from both sides of the Rio Grande told the Morning News the power of the drug traffickers posed a threat to both countries. "We either win together or we lose together," said Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora in interviews last month.

The legislative process is weeks from completion, and officials said there will be hearings on the proposed massive aid increase in coming days or weeks. It will undoubtedly be challenged on the Hill, both by those skeptical of investing money in "corrupt" Mexico and by those skeptical of massive foreign anti-drugs programs. Still, it could well pass, given broader congressional concern about the border.

Some skepticism is coming from unexpected quarters. Phil Jordan, former head of the DEA's Dallas office, told the newspaper the aid could end up as money being poured down a rat hole. "Until you reduce US demand for drugs and weed out the immense corruption among Mexico's law enforcement, pouring more US money into Mexico won't necessarily solve the problem," he said.

Mexican Attorney General Medina Mora agreed in part with Jordan, but also raised another issue. "The US government needs to do more in reducing the drug consumption, and it needs to do its part in the equation of stopping the flow of cash and weapons," he said. "The US law is too flexible, too permissive when it comes to gun possession, and unfortunately many of those guns, particularly high-power assault weapons, too often end up in the hands of ruthless drug cartels."

Look for a coming battle in Congress as the defense appropriation bill moves forward.

Feature: Supreme Court Weighs Arguments on Limits of Judicial Discretion in Sentencing

The US Supreme Court Tuesday heard oral arguments in a pair of drug cases that will help clarify how much discretion federal judges have in sentencing under federal sentencing guidelines. When rendered, the court's opinion could impact the tens of thousands of people sentenced in the federal courts each year.

US Supreme Court
While one of the cases involves a man sentenced under the crack cocaine laws, which punish crack much more severely than powder cocaine, the court's decision will have no impact on the federal mandatory minimum sentence laws under which many drug offenders are subjected to lengthy prison sentences.

The court's taking up the two sentencing guideline cases comes as the nation's quarter-century-long experiment with mass incarceration is under increasing pressure. The federal prison population has expanded nearly ten-fold from 24,000 prisoners in 1982 to more than 200,000 this year, more than half of them drug offenders under the harsh regime of sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum sentences.

The US Sentencing Commission is set to reduce the guidelines' crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity administratively November 1 unless Congress acts to block it, though it has not yet decided whether to make the change retroactive. While the proposed reduction is slighter than advocates have called for, if made retroactive it would help about 19,500 current prisoners, most notably those serving the longer sentences, by an average of 27 months or relief -- 1,315 current prisoners would receive sentences reductions of 49 months or more. At least three bills addressing that disparity have been filed in Congress. And just yesterday, Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), a member the Joint Economic Committee, held a hearing titled "Mass Incarceration in the United States: At What Cost?"

The Supreme Court threw the federal sentencing structure into a sort of judicial chaos when it ruled two years ago in Booker v. US, and a related case, US v. Fan Fan, that federal sentencing guidelines, which had for the past two decades limited judges' sentencing decisions to finding the proper box on a sentencing grid, were no longer mandatory, but only advisory. Since then, federal district and appellate courts have struggled to determine just what that means, with some judges sometimes handing out sentences below the guidelines, which have in turn sometimes been overturned on appeal.

The two cases before the court represent different aspects of the federal sentencing conundrum. In Gall v. US, Brian Gall was convicted of conspiracy to sell ecstasy in Iowa, but rather than sentence him to the 30-37 months in prison suggested by the guidelines, his sentencing judge gave him probation, noting that he had walked away from the conspiracy years earlier and led an exemplary life since. The probationary sentence was overturned by the 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.

In Kimbrough v. US, Derrick Kimbrough was convicted of selling crack and powder cocaine in Virginia. Citing Kimbrough's military service and the controversy over the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity, his trial judge sentenced him to the mandatory minimum 15 years instead of the 19-22 years suggested by the guidelines. His sentence, too, was overturned, this time by the US 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.

In Gall, the appeals court held that such an "extraordinary" departure from the guidelines required an "extraordinary" justification. In Kimbrough, the appeals court held that judges could not reject a guidelines sentence because of their disagreement with underlying sentencing policy.

In oral arguments in the two cases Tuesday, the court displayed some of the same confusion and ambivalence its previous sentencing rulings have generated on the federal bench. The court is caught between two seemingly irreconcilable goals: to ensure similar sentences for similar offenses, and to restore a measure of discretion to judges.

"It may be quite impossible to achieve uniformity through advisory guidelines, which is why Congress made them mandatory," Justice Antonin Scalia observed. But Scalia has led the bloc of the court that has moved to undo the mandatory federal guidelines scheme.

Justice Stephen Breyer, who helped author the guidelines and remains their strongest proponent on the court, accused Kimbrough's counsel, Michael Nachmanoff, of not offering the court a way out of its dilemma after Nachmanoff insisted that Booker required that judges be granted reasonable flexibility." You're saying either we have to make it [the sentencing guidelines] unconstitutional," he said, "or you have to say anything goes."

"Your position is not anything goes," Scalia jumped in in Nachmanoff's defense. "It's anything that's reasonable goes."

That led Justice Anthony M. Kennedy to ask, "How do we define 'reasonable?'" And so the argument turned in circles.

For his part, Justice Department lawyer Michael Dreeben, who argued both cases, argued that Congress intended to punish crack cocaine more seriously than powder, and judges should heed Congress' will. "For a judge to say Congress is crazy," Dreeben said, "is a sort of textbook example of an unreasonable sentencing factor."

"The guidelines are only guidelines. They are advisory," Scalia shot back, adding that sometimes sentences were too long.

While the tenor of oral arguments suggested a favorable ruling may be coming, especially for Kimbrough, observers of the court were reluctant to speculate. But they were not reluctant to talk about what it all means.

"Everyone is struggling" with the federal sentencing conundrum, said Doug Berman, professor of law at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and author of the Sentencing Law and Policy blog. "Most prominently, they are trying to figure out what to make of this opaque standard of reasonableness," he said.

"If the Supreme Court reverses the circuit courts and upholds the trial courts, emphasizing the discretion district court judges have to reduce sentences below the guidelines, that could have a significant impact, especially on first offenders and others with mitigating factors," Berman said.

"The national debate over the excessive penalties prescribed under the federal sentencing guidelines for low-level crack cocaine offenses has infiltrated Congress, the advocacy community and now the US Supreme Court," said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project. "There is nearly universal agreement that current sentences for crack cocaine offenses are unfair and ineffective. The court's action will certainly influence the policy debate," he added.

"The Supreme Court's consideration of the magnitude of discretion afforded to federal sentencing judges is a step towards creating a more just sentencing system," said Mauer. "In light of recent events in Jena, Louisiana, and concerns about disparity within the justice system, a new consciousness about the unfairness and ineffectiveness of our criminal justice system has emerged," Mauer continued.

"These cases have to be considered against the backdrop of extraordinarily long terms for minor drug offenders," Berman said. "That the government can argue that sending Kimbrough to prison for 15 years is unreasonably lenient and the length of that sentence hardly gets questioned suggests that everyone has drunk the federal sentencing guideline kool-aid," he said.

For some groups with a deep interest in justice in sentencing, whatever the Supreme Court does won't be enough. "Whatever the court decides, the real solution to unjust crack sentences lies in Congress," said Mary Price, vice president and general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "Even if the court permits judges to avoid unjust crack sentences called for by the guidelines, many defendants will still be sentenced under unjust mandatory minimum statutes. Congress made a mistake by basing sentencing almost exclusively on one factor -- drug quantity. Judges should be permitted to sentence based on all facts about the defendant and the offense, not just quantity. These cases show why mandatory minimum sentencing laws are unwise, unnecessary, and unjust."

It goes even deeper than that, said Chuck Armsbury of the November Coalition, an anti-prohibitionist group that concentrates on freeing drug war prisoners. "No amount of Supreme Court tinkering with the sentencing guidelines can guarantee an end to sentencing disparities," he said. "Most of the sentencing disparity is due to rules and results of deal making by informants, police and prosecutors working together secretly. The justices are unlikely to admit they can't determine the fairness of a hidden system's operations," he argued. "To fix this broken system would mean to rein in police, prosecutors and the snitch system producing substantial differences in drug sentences."

That's not going to happen through the Supreme Court chipping at the edges of draconian sentencing, Armsbury said. "Even if they win, the cases under review this week will likely join a long line of previous Supreme Court cases that failed to correct wrongful sentencing practices or result in the release of thousands of over-incarcerated people, the great majority convicted of drug crimes."

Still, if further reform of the draconian federal sentencing laws comes out of this pair of cases, some drug defendants will get lesser sentences, and that's a good thing. But as the critics point out, it's not enough. The mass incarceration juggernaut has been speeding along for decades now, and it's going to require more than some Supreme Court decisions tinkering at the edges to achieve fundamental change.

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