Rethinking drug policy in the US?

Two events this week may signal the beginning of a new approach in the fight against illegal drugs in the US.

Last Monday, a judge in New York ruled that the Police Department policy of stop-and-frisk violates the Constitution by disproportionately targeting black and Hispanic people. The tactic has been used 4.4 million times between 2004 and 2012, and 80% of the cases affected black or Hispanic suspects.

Judge Scheindlin wrote: ”The city’s highest officials have turned a blind eye to the evidence that officers are conducting stops in a racially discriminatory manner.” Her ruling confirms that, for low level and non violent drug offences, mainly related with marijuana, there is a racial bias so that this policy disproportionately affects minorities.

On the other hand, the Attorney General Eric Holder announced the end of mandatory federal prison sentences for low-level and non-violent drug crimes. Mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes –marijuana possession in particular– contribute disproportionately to the country’s overcrowded prison system.

The FBI recognizes that a marijuana related arrest happened every 42 seconds in the US by 2011, with 750.000 arrests total.The number decreased to a half the following year, but is still much higher than arrests for other drugs.

Eric Holder made the announcement at the American Bar Association’s meeting in San Francisco. Incarceration should be used to “punish deter and rehabilitate, not merely to convict, warehouse and forget,” Holder said in unveiling the new policy shift.  He said mandatory minimum sentencing has cost the government $80 billion in 2010 alone.

Although moderate in scope (with critics saying that this is not enough), both initiatives may result in less incarceration rates and lower sentences for low-level drug offenders.

I have talked about the war on drugs before in this blog. However previous posts engaged in the international dimensions of the ‘war’ while not touching the war as it is waged within the US. It is no surprise: the hardline approach is also true in US territory. A strong focus on Law enforcement has created the highest incarceration rates in the world, with many people jailed for even low-level drug offences, specially when it comes to minorities like black and Hispanic people. Policies of prevention of drug consumption trough education and health approaches have received far less attention and scarce resources. 

The Obama Administration announced, as early as 2009, a new approach towards illicit drugs. The intention was good, although results have fallen short. The issues mentioned here mark a departure, if limited. Let’s see the results.