Columnist: Blowing the Whistle on the Drug War -- At Last

I thought I'd never live to see the day. But now it's happened. An attorney general of the United States has finally said he is ready to blow the whistle on America's ill-fated, racially tinged and cruelly applied "war on drugs."

Eric Holder signaled the shift in a speech Monday to the American Bar Association. He admitted that the drug war, which his department has spearheaded, has wrought grim unintended consequences including decimating communities of color -- part of "a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration [that] traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities."

That's precisely the point critics have long been making. I've decried the drug war and soaring imprisonments in dozens of my own columns, spread from 1987 to the present. I've found it incomprehensible that presidents, both Republican and Democratic, could continue to ignore the moral, practical imperative of reforming a penal system that results in the United States, with just 5 percent of world population, incarcerating almost 25 percent of all prisoners.

There had been hope that President Obama, acutely aware of the system's failing since his community organizing days, would move for reform soon after taking office. He didn't. And Holder didn't either, countenancing continued prosecutorial crackdowns, even on low-level marijuana offenders.

"Attorney General Holder should have said years ago what he said today -- and he knows it," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. Nadelmann added that "tens, perhaps hundreds of Americans have suffered unjustly as a result of the delay."

But now, at least, Holder pledges to make criminal justice reform a cornerstone of the rest of his tenure as attorney general. Interest in reform is growing with several bipartisan bills in Congress.

With luck, we may even see Obama himself speak out, using the moral authority of his office to press for change.

National awareness of the futility of the drug war has risen over recent years. And there's growing understanding, in an era of fierce budget shortfalls, that billions of dollars are being expended -- by the federal and state governments alike -- on prosecutions and incarcerations that do little to stem either drug use or crime.

What's not yet clear is how broad the Obama administration's openness to drug law reform will actually be.

A top example: The White House drug czar's position is now vacant. Will the president appoint a new director who is seriously interested in shifting policy focus from drugs as a criminal justice issue to health issues and ways to reduce mass incarceration?

And then there's the question of pardons. Anthony Papa, media manager of the Drug Policy Alliance who was imprisoned 12 years under New York state's Rockefeller drug laws before receiving clemency, says it isn't clear what the administration's new policy will mean for people currently behind bars. His proposal:

"Obama should use his presidential authority to pardon and, in particular, commute the sentences of people who were charged under the old 100-to-1 crack-to-powder-cocaine ratio. Society would be better served by not locking up people for extraordinarily long sentences for nonviolent low-level drug offenses. It's a waste of tax dollars and human lives."

The reality is that the Obama administration -- at least up to now -- has been extraordinarily slow in issuing presidential pardons for any reason.

Plus, there is the question of how vigorously Holder will move to shift the focus of the 94 U.S. attorneys around the country, urging them to focus drug prosecutions on major, not small-time, users and dealers. Close to half the drug convictions in federal courts are for minor offenders such as street-level dealers and couriers, according to the Washington-based Sentencing Project.

Then there's the question of how the Justice Department will handle the issue of voter-approved legalization of marijuana use and sale in Colorado and Washington -- actions easily interpreted as violations of federal law.

Plus, while presidential and Justice Department support for justice reform can impact national thinking, the vast majority of criminal cases -- for drugs and most other offenses -- are in the hands of state governments.

Holder indicates it's positive that 17 states have recently redirected money from prison construction to such services as treatment and supervision that are designed to reduce the problem of repeat offenders.

Among the current lead states on reform that he cites are Kentucky, Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Hawaii.

But there's still a massive reform agenda that needs to be carried out, nationally and in the 50 states, if we're to return to the rational and balanced crime approach that prevailed in America before President Nixon 42 years ago proclaimed and plunged us into an ill-advised, never-winnable "war on drugs."

Hopefully, the Holder switch marks the beginning of the end for that policy and the millions of human tragedies that have flowed in its wake.

(c) 2013, The Washington Post Writers Group