By Keith Mansur
Oregon Cannabis Connection
United States Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions issued a memo on May 10, 2017, calling for Justice Department attorneys to prosecute drug offenders to the fullest extent of the law, rolling back the Obama administrations changes which empowered those attorneys to stop the draconian imprisonment of people for drug use or possession. The Sessions memo goes against a strong bi-partisan effort to change the failed drug war approach to battle drug abuse—an conservative backed enforcement tactic that filled our prisons with non-violent minority drug offenders.
“We are returning to the enforcement of the laws as passed by Congress, plain and simple,” Sessions said in his 2 page memo. “If you are a drug trafficker, we will not look the other way, we will not be willfully blind to your misconduct.”
View Sessions recent public comments below:
The change in policy drew a strong statement from former Attorney General Eric Holder who was responsible for the policy change. Under his leadership, he allowed prosecutors to use discretion when charging certain defendants with crimes that carry long mandatory minimum sentences. Holder criticized the move in a memo which he posted on Twitter:
“The policy announced today is not tough on crime. It is dumb on crime. It is an ideologically motivated, cookie-cutter approach that has only been proven to generate unfairly long sentences that are often applied indiscriminately and do little to achieve long-term public safety…
This absurd reversal is driven by voices who have not only been discredited but until now have been relegated to the fringes of this debate. Congress can reverse these actions by enacting the criminal justice reform measures that were being considered as late as last year and that had the support of Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives.”
Drug reform organizations were not pleased, either. The move is expected to fill prisons with low level drug offenders and disproportionately affect minorities.
“This is a disastrous move that will increase the prison population, exacerbate racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and do nothing to reduce drug use or increase public safety,” Michael Collins of Drug Policy Alliance told NPR. “Sessions is taking the country back to the 1980s by escalating the failed policies of the drug war.
The new direction conflicts with Sessions comments during his confirmation hearing by the United States Senate. The change in approach is not what Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) expected and it is not a plan he can support. He voiced serious concerns in an Op-ed on CNN.com:
“Mandatory minimum sentences have unfairly and disproportionately incarcerated a generation of minorities. Eric Holder, the attorney general under President Obama, issued guidelines to U.S. Attorneys that they should refrain from seeking long sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
I agreed with him then and still do. In fact, I’m the author of a bipartisan bill with Senator Leahy to change the law on this matter. Until we pass that bill, though, the discretion on enforcement — and the lives of many young drug offenders — lies with the current attorney general.
The attorney general’s new guidelines, a reversal of a policy that was working, will accentuate the injustice in our criminal justice system. We should be treating our nation’s drug epidemic for what it is — a public health crisis, not an excuse to send people to prison and turn a mistake into a tragedy.”
On May 16, 2017, Rand Paul, along with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) issued a statement on the bi-partisan bill to fix to Sessions’ attempt at rolling back the changes implemented by Holder.
“When we require that judges sentence offenders to years, sometimes decades, longer than is needed to keep our communities safe, it comes at extraordinary costs. An outgrowth of the failed War on Drugs, mandatory sentencing strips critical public safety resources away from law enforcement strategies that actually make our communities safer. It also comes with a human cost, particularly for communities of color, and results in a criminal justice system that is anything but ‘just.’ Our bipartisan approach offers a simple solution: Let judges judge,” said Sen. Leahy in a press release relating to the legislation.
Sessions argued that the policy is not “unfair” to non-violent drug offenders. But, he inadvertently made an excellent argument for legalization, stating, “Drug trafficking is an inherently dangerous and violent business,” Sessions said. “If you want to collect a drug debt, you can’t file a lawsuit in court. You collect it with the barrel of a gun.”
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