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Eric Holder and Drug Policy

Submitted by smorgan on
Obama’s selection of federal prosecutor Eric Holder to serve as attorney general has provoked concern among reformers, namely due to Holder’s calls for increased marijuana enforcement and harsher sentences in Washington, D.C. during the mid-90’s.

U.S. Attorney Eric H. Holder Jr. said in an interview that he is considering not only prosecuting more marijuana cases but also asking the D.C. Council to enact stiffer penalties for the sale and use of marijuana.

"We have too long taken the view that what we would term to be minor crimes are not important," Holder said, referring to current attitudes toward marijuana use and other offenses such as panhandling. [Washington Post]

There’s nothing good to be said about that, but it’s incomplete in terms of giving us a sense of what Holder’s overall drug policy priorities may be. 3 years later, Holder was sounding a bit more reasonable on the issue of drug sentencing:

QUESTION: In the last couple of weeks there has been renewed dialogue about mandatory minimum sentences. Some conservative groups and some traditionally thought of as liberal groups are both saying that the mandatory minimums are not working, they are filling jails unnecessarily. Is the administration fairly well satisfied that mandatory minimums are good idea? Or will you try -- will this administration try again in the coming Congress to take another look at mandatory minimums?

MR. HOLDER: Well, I do not think that we should ever foreclose the possibility that we take a look at how the laws that we have passed are working. I tend to think that mandatory minimum sentences that deal with people who commit violent crimes are almost always good things. I think the concerns are generally raised about mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders. And I think there are some questions that we ought to ask.

I do not go into it with a presumption that they're necessarily bad, but we ought to look at the statistics and see, are we putting in prison, are we using our limited prison space for the kind of people that we want to have there? Are the sentences commensurate with the kind of conduct that puts people in jail for these mandatory minimum sentences?

Those are the kinds of questions I think that we ought to ask. And as thinking legislators on both sides, Republicans and Democrats, liberal and conservative, I would hope that we would ask those questions and then go into it with an open mind.

Almost a decade later, the disastrous consequences of mandatory minimum sentencing are more evident than ever and even notorious drug warriors like Joe Biden have pushed drug war posturing aside to begin addressing the problem. As the political landscape surrounding drug sentencing continues to evolve, Holder’s "open mind" along with Obama’s concerns about over-incarceration of non-violent drug offenders could provide a positive climate for sentencing reform.

Beyond that, we just don’t have a great deal of evidence to draw upon. I haven’t seen any public statements from Holder regarding medical marijuana and other top drug policy reform issues. Realistically, it may be a best-case scenario that we’re faced with a long-time U.S. attorney who appears viable and at least lacks a lengthy track record of drug war grandstanding. The totality of Holder’s scary drug policy demagoguery potentially falls far short of what we might hear from others with his background. Silence on most of our issues is arguably the best reformers can hope for when it comes to selecting the next head of the DOJ.

At this point, I know nothing about Eric Holder that would indicate opposition to the drug policy reforms Obama endorsed on the campaign trail. Holder enters office fully cognizant of Obama’s perspective on the war on drugs and I remain hopeful that he’ll become a critical figure in moving forward the reforms we’ve been told to expect from this administration.

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