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The War on Drugs Is a Failure, so Jeff Sessions Is All for It

Attorney General Jeff Sessions at an April meeting of the executive committee of the Organized Crime Council and Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces. (Alex Brandon / AP)

The war on drugs in the United States didn’t work the first time, so Jeff Sessions wants to give it another shot. Thanks to a new policy announced Thursday by the U.S. attorney general, people convicted on drug charges now can expect to receive a stiff minimum sentence. The policy change follows the Obama administration’s sweeping reduction in harsh prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, a move that won support across the political spectrum.

 

In May, Sessions sent a memorandum to federal prosecutors across the country urging them to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” in all criminal cases, even though overall crime is lower than it has been in decades. The following day, Sessions delivered remarks at the Drug Enforcement Administration 360 Heroin and Opioid Response Summit in West Virginia and emphasized that “criminal enforcement is crucial to stopping the violent transnational cartels that smuggle drugs across our borders, and the thugs and gangs who bring this poison into our communities.”

Vice News elaborates:

If that language sounds familiar, it’s because Ronald Reagan said something eerily similar in 1988, when many of the current mandatory minimums were put on the books. “We cannot tolerate criminals who violate our borders, terrorize our communities, or poison our citizens,” Reagan said, laying the groundwork for his new strategy “to reduce the supply and demand for illegal drugs.”

Nearly 30 years later, there’s still ample supply and booming demand for drugs. And now, after the federal government’s brief experiment with an alternative approach, Sessions is ensuring that the strategy for fighting the war on drugs will regress.

The bad effects of the so-called war on drugs—unfair treatment of people of color and the poor, an immense cost to taxpayers, overcrowded prisons and little to no reduction in drug-related crime or recidivism rates—seem to be completely lost on Sessions.

Amid the overwhelming evidence that minimum sentences for nonviolent federal drug offenses do little except exacerbate mass incarceration — which is perhaps the most pressing civil rights problem of our time — it’s hard to imagine that Sessions’ return to old policies is not just an attempt to tighten governmental control over people of color and the poor.

Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison calls Sessions a racist and views his rise to attorney general as a “nightmare scenario,” the MinnPost reports. “He’s horrible on every issue. … He believes in using the criminal justice system as an instrument of racial and economic control of poor people and brown people,” Ellison charged.

Focusing on drug offenses at the federal level has proved futile before, even though Sessions argues that the 2015 rise in murder rates was somehow a result of a 2013 directive by his predecessor, Eric Holder, that scaled back federal prosecutions in lower-level drug cases. The Washington Post explains:

First, federal prosecutors handle fewer than 10 percent of all criminal cases, so a modest change in their charging policy with respect to a subset of drug cases is unlikely to have a nationwide impact on crime. The other 90 percent of criminal prosecution is conducted by state prosecutors, who were not affected by Holder’s policy.

Second, the few individuals who benefited from Holder’s policy by definition lacked a sustained history of crime or violence or any connections to major drug traffickers.

Third, the increases in violent crime that Sessions cites are not nationally uniform, which one would expect if they were attributable to federal policy. In 2015, murder rates rose in Chicago, Cleveland, and Baltimore, to be sure. But they declined in Boston and El Paso, and stayed relatively steady in New York, Las Vegas, Detroit and Atlanta. If federal drug policy were responsible for the changes, we would not see such dramatic variances from city to city.

The ACLU released a statement saying that Sessions is “pushing federal prosecutors to reverse progress and repeat a failed experiment.” Additionally, a former Senate staffer who helped draft a prominent minimum-sentencing law supported by Sessions says now that the legislation has proved to be ineffective and poorly thought out.

In June, the History Channel aired a four-part documentary series called “America’s War on Drugs.” The series asserts that the war on drugs was actually a war of drugs—and that the CIA was essentially a partner in spreading drugs and drug use. The series follows how the U.S. intelligence agency, in an obsession with fighting communism, allied itself with U.S. organized crime and foreign drug traffickers and includes firsthand accounts from many involved. In an interview with Truthdig columnist Sonali Kolhatkar on her radio program “Rising Up With Sonali,” the series’ executive producer, Anthony Lappé, explains why the CIA got involved:

It’s actually a pretty mind-blowing story when you look at the extent to which the CIA was involved with drug traffickers and drug trafficking throughout the Cold War. … If you look at Cold War policy against the Soviet Union, we were locked in a global battle for supremacy, where we have lots of proxy wars going on. … We needed to team up with local allies, and often the local allies we were teaming up with were people who had access to guns, who had access to underground networks, to help us fight the perceived threat of communism. There are actually a lot of similarities between what drug traffickers do and what the CIA does.

Lappé elaborates by saying the hypocrisy of the war on drugs has been evident from the start: Secret CIA experiments with LSD helped fuel the counterculture movement, leading to President Richard Nixon’s crackdown and declaration of the war on drugs.

The series also explores the CIA’s role in the rise of crack cocaine in poor black communities and a secret island “cocaine base.” In addition the documentary makes the connection between the war on drugs, the war on terror and the transformation of Afghanistan into a narco state and contends that American intervention in Mexico helped give clout to Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and the super cartels, making it easier to send drugs across American borders.

Watch Kolhatkar’s full interview with Lappé below.

Perhaps the series—which offered a thorough analysis of the CIA’s involvement in the global drug trade for the first time on mainstream cable television—might be of interest to Jeff Sessions.

Emily Wells
​Emily Wells is an Ear to the Ground blogger at Truthdig. As a journalist, she began as a crime reporter at the Pulitzer-winning daily newspaper, The Press-Enterprise...
Emily Wells

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