In June of 1971, Richard Nixon declared America's "War on Drugs."
Now more than 40 years later, Attorney General Eric Holder is condemning the war and calling it a failure.
While Holder is right to label this a fail, it is not because we did not try. The past few decades have seen the creation of several anti-drug organizations and policies such as the Department Enforcement Administration, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act and even the allocation of $1.3 billion to Colombia to combat drug trafficking.
Despite – or maybe even as a result – of all this enforcement, the U.S. still has consistently overcrowded prisons and some of the highest incarceration rates in the world.
Clearly it is about time someone comes out and says what we're all thinking: this is a joke. A war on drugs implies that the issue has an end, a winner and a loser. A war on drugs is like a war on poverty: you can fight it all you want, but it remains highly unrealistic that it will ever be totally eradicated. Instead of spending billions of dollars on a system that simply is not working, why not take a different approach? Holder's recent comments imply that this is his intent.
In a speech to the American Bar Association last Monday, Holder stated that the goal of the federal government is to "punish, deter and to rehabilitate, not to merely warehouse and forget."
After completing a summer internship in a federal courthouse, Holder's comments resonate with me. During a 2 1/2 month span, I saw hundreds of defendants come and go. Most were charged with gun or drug violations, and an overwhelming number were Hispanic or black.
This was not your typical episode of "Law & Order." Watching a person your age be sentenced to prison for at least 10 years is a profound experience. I saw firsthand that the War on Drugs is a losing one and that Holder is admirable for questioning the purpose of mandatory minimums.
Trying to understand why these minimums are a misguided approach can be complicated; decoding federal law is a feat that most people understandably avoid. Many people don't even realize the difference between crack cocaine and powder cocaine, a discernment that is central to this issue. Until 2010, laws specified a mandatory minimum sentencing guideline of 100 to 1 disparity for crack cocaine and powder cocaine, which essentially meant that the minimum sentence for 5 grams of crack (five years) was the same sentence that applied to 500 grams of powder cocaine.
When the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was passed in 1986, the goal was to target major dealers and wipe out the flow of trafficked drugs. What it did instead was decimate certain populations, specifically low-income African Americans.
Crack cocaine is the cheaper form of the drug and is more often used by low-income abusers. Powder cocaine, however, is the form of choice for higher-income users and typically affiliated with wealthy abusers. Knowing this, it should not be surprising that while African Americans make up 15 percent of American drug users, blacks account for 74 percent of defendants sentenced to prison for drug crimes. It is equally unsurprising that 80 percent of defendants sentenced for crack cocaine possession are African Americans.
This does not suggest that the creation of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act or mandatory minimums was created specifically to target African American populations. The goal of the legislation was to target powerful drug dealers in order to staunch the flow of drugs in America. Unfortunately, it has had the opposite effect. A report issued by the ACLU in 2006 shows that 73 percent of defendants sentenced for crack violations are merely users and have extremely low involvement in the actual distribution.
Holder condemns the war and these mandatory minimum sentences not out of a political agenda or ulterior motive; he condemns them because they simply do not solve the problem. They exacerbate it.
To see a powerful government official stop and recognize failure should comfort all of us. His remarks might signify the beginning of new solutions to the drug problems this country faces.
If he redirects the justice system to focus on the distributors and give them the harsher sentences, the War on Drugs may succeed after all.
Katie Dean is a junior in political science and psychology. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.