Marijuana: Eric Holder calls for drug-sentencing reform but is silent on Colorado pot law
Earlier this month, the White House announced hardline drug czar Gil Kerlikowske's nomination as the new U.S. Commissioner of Customs -- a move that caused some observers to wonder if the Obama administration was finally laying the groundwork for a more progressive approach to state marijuana laws like those in Colorado and Washington. Today brought another development cut from the same cloth: Attorney General Eric Holder's advocacy of lower sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
Photos, video and more below.
But neither marijuana nor Colorado were mentioned in the announcement, on view below in both video and text form, leaving one cannabis advocate hopeful but uncertain about the future.
Tom Angell, spokesman for the Marijuana Majority and a close observer of Colorado's political and pot landscape, notes that the Department of Justice is still saying a federal response to Amendment 64 and Washington's Initiative 502 is "under review" -- pretty much the same line the DOJ has been delivering for months. Indeed, Holder said a decision would be coming "relatively soon" this past March -- just shy of six months ago.
"On one hand, it's frustrating that the administration's unnecessary delays in responding to the votes in Colorado and Washington is creating so much uncertainty and confusion," Angell writes via e-mail. "On the other hand, the longer the Justice Department takes to announce its policy, the more time that state regulators have to begin implementing these laws without any explicit federal roadblocks. The further along that these states get in enacting the will of their voters, the harder it'll be to reverse things should the administration end up deciding it wants to intervene unfavorably."
At the same time, Angell is generally pleased with remarks Holder made a few hours ago at the American Bar Association's annual meeting in San Francisco -- with some important caveats.
The attorney general chose the occasion to call for more flexibility when it comes to mandatory-minimum sentencing. As such, he boosted the idea of using "drug treatment and community service initiatives" as an alternative to incarceration for those convicted of drug-related crimes who are clearly not a serious danger to the community as a whole.
Here's an excerpt from Holder's speech:
As the so-called "war on drugs" enters its fifth decade, we need to ask whether it, and the approaches that comprise it, have been truly effective -- and build on the Administration's efforts, led by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, to usher in a new approach.Holder portrays this move as not only just but cost-effective -- a way to save millions of dollars by diverting resources away from prison construction and toward different methods of addressing those found guilty of low-level narcotics offenses.
That's music to Angell's ears -- but he feels such changes should be seen as the beginning of a process, not the end of one.
Eric Holder speaking at the American Bar Association meeting in San Francisco earlier today.
"The attorney general's remarks represent a good first step toward scaling back the failed 'war on drugs,'" he maintains. "These proposals will allow some people charged with drug offenses to have opportunities to put their lives back together sooner and will save taxpayers some money that is now being wasted putting human beings in cages for no good reason whatsoever. However, the criminal justice system should not just have less of a role in the effort to address the medical problem of drug abuse. It should have no role.
"The real value of these proposals will be in the implementation, which drug policy reform advocates have good reason to be wary about," he continues. "For example, despite a 2009 Justice Department memo urging U.S. attorneys not to go after marijuana businesses that are legal under state law, more state-legal medical marijuana providers were shuttered by federal actions during the first term of the Obama administration than were closed during George W. Bush's two terms. And we're still waiting for the administration to announce its response to the marijuana legalization laws in Colorado and Washington....
"If the administration is serious about using law enforcement resources in a smarter way," he stresses, "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."
Angell's bottom line? "Clearly, drug policy reformers have a lot of work ahead of us to make sure that the administration's deeds match its words. But today's remarks by the attorney general give us a lot to work with."
Continue to see a video of Eric Holder's speech to the American Bar Association earlier today, as well as the complete text of his remarks.