AG Eric Holder’s missed opportunity to speak on marijuana laws
When U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder ended his speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco yesterday, some marijuana advocates across the country were a bit shocked.
Holder’s speech was the first of its kind—he referred to America’s “broken system” and even pre-empted the term “war on drugs” with “so-called.”
He instructed federal prosecutors to stop charging nonviolent drug dealers with offenses that carry mandatory minimums, a condition the American Civil Liberties Union called a “big deal” with nervous optimism, and the diversion of low-level drug offenders to drug treatment instead of prison.
“[T]oo many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason. It’s clear, at a basic level, that 20th century criminal justice solutions are not adequate to overcome our 21st century challenges. And it is well past time to implement common sense changes that will foster safer communities from coast to coast,” Holder said.
And while that’s progress, as was stated by several medicinal and recreational marijuana advocates shortly after the speech, Holder may have missed a historic opportunity to, according to Steve DeAngelo, owner of a medical marijuana facility in California, “address the single most pressing drug reform issue in the country.”
“The position that they’ve taken has very little to do with marijuana or even medical marijuana,” says Chris Goldstein, a Board Member at PhillyNORML, the local arm of a national marijuana reform advocacy group. “And that’s a little odd.”
When it comes to marijuana arrests, as reported in an ACLU report from earlier this year, the United States has seen the number skyrocket from 340,000 in 1980 to more than 750,000 in 2009. In Pennsylvania, marijuana arrests comprise about 50 percent of all drug arrests.
“If the administration is serious about using law enforcement resources in a smarter way,” noted Tom Angell, founder of Marijuana Majority, in a statement, “it should be a no-brainer to strongly direct federal prosecutors to respect the majority of voters by allowing these groundbreaking state laws to be implemented without interference.”
What makes the marijuana issue especially pressing is the Obama Administration’s aggressive crackdown on medical marijuana states—and their silence on two western states—Washington and Colorado—legalizing recreation marijuana during the November 2012 election.
And while marijuana arrests are not as serious as those arrested for cocaine or other, harder drugs, if you get arrested enough times for marijuana use, it’s possible you could see prison time.
Another part of Goldstein’s skepticism comes from whom Holder is directing on the new drug policy: U.S. attorneys.
“U.S. attorneys are political animals. [NJ Gov.] Chris Christie used to be one,” he says.
On marijuana policy, although New Jersey has legal medical marijuana, actually obtaining it in the Garden State has proven extremely difficult, if not impossible.
“Holder is giving U.S. attorneys a broad instruction and a political animal will interpret the law how they see fit and use federal resources to do whatever it wants,” he adds.
So what did Holder offer for marijuana advocates yesterday? “Almost nothing,” Goldstein says, “and that’s really the sad part.”
Randy doesn’t follow Eric Holder on Twitter, but you should follow him: @RandyLoBasso