US Attorney General Jeff Sessions is reviving the US government’s out-of-date, ineffective, and counterproductive war on drugs. Today it was reported that he will rescind the 2013 Cole Memo, which allowed federal prosecutors to choose not to prosecute marijuana offenses in the states that allow adults to consume it.
Last year, Sessions also reinvigorated the war on drugs by rescinding former Attorney General Eric Holder’s Smart on Crime guidance to keep low-level, nonviolent offenders out of prison, and repealed then-President Barack Obama’s 21st Century Policing practices, put in place to curb excessive drug law enforcement.
Earlier this week, California became the sixth US state to allow recreational use of marijuana for adults. Sessions’ latest action shows that the attorney general wants federal prosecutors to have much less leeway in deciding whether to enforce federal marijuana laws in states like California. At a moment when preliminary US Centers for Disease Control data suggests that 146 people are dying every day in the United States from opioid overdoses, it is difficult to understand why the White House is focusing such energy on marijuana policy. President Donald Trump has yet to nominate directors for either the Drug Enforcement Administration or the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Sessions’ combined actions will fuel arrests and mass incarceration in states and at the federal level. Every 25 seconds, someone in the United States is arrested for merely possessing drugs.
One in nine arrests at the state level is for drug possession – 1.25 million arrests every year – and they all cycle through the criminal justice system. Human Rights Watch has documented that this massive effort has had negligible impact on drug availability, and has even worsened the harms of drug trafficking and drug dependence. Even though African Americans and whites use drugs at the same rates, African Americans are disproportionately targeted, arrested, and incarcerated for drug offenses. Those incarcerated for drug offenses typically do not have access to drug treatment and can carry a scarlet letter for years, which impedes successful reentry into society by limiting housing and employment options.
Make no mistake, the war on drugs is again underway. It’s now up to Congress to check the Justice Department’s misguided policies by passing legislation to decriminalize possession for personal use of marijuana and other drugs.