Civil liberties and drug decriminalization advocates were starting to realize some of their worst fears in recent days as U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a return to harsher prison time for federal drug convicts.
Under the Obama administration the Department of Justice "instructed federal prosecutors to exercise greater discretion in selecting drug cases to bring to federal court," according to the DOJ. During that time, drug trafficking cases dropped by six percent in 2014; only one out of two drug convicts was subject to so-called "mandatory minimum" sentences that year and the number of prisoners behind federal bars was reduced by 8,000 during Obama's second term, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. The move was welcomed by sentencing reform advocates, who saw Obama's policies as a step toward ending a federal war on drugs that was in effect since the days of President Nixon.
On Friday, Sessions reversed course, directing his U.S. Attorneys in Los Angeles and elsewhere to rescind "previous policy of the Department of Justice" and "pursue the most serious, readily provable offense" against drug suspects, according to his memo.
"The language is that if you're a drug dealer we'll lock you up," says Michael Collins, deputy director at the Drug Policy Alliance's Office of National Affairs in Washington, D.C. "There's no room for nuance there. What the Obama administration saw was more discretion."
Critics argue that because people of color are more likely to be ensnared in drug cases despite comparable or even less drug involvement than whites, the return to harsh prosecutions is, in effect, a return to discriminatory justice. "The war on drugs is a tool to prosecute and persecute people of color," Collins says. "That's what this administration wants to do."
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Sessions' directive was opposed by a bipartisan array of critics, including Democratic U.S. Sen Kamala Harris and conservative group Freedom Partners, which is affiliated with the Koch brothers. "Jeff Sessions wants to turn back the clock on the progress we’ve made on sentencing reform — and we must speak out against it," Harris said via Twitter. "There are less costly and more effective ways to help low level offenders who aren’t a threat to public safety other than incarceration," Freedom Partners Chairman Mark Holden said in a statement.
"Sessions wants to return to policies that are dumb on crime," Democratic U.S. Rep. Tony Cardenas of the San Fernando Valley said in a statement. "The research is clear — they don’t work. What’s more, these policies waste billions of taxpayers’ dollars, and they turn back progress made by red and blue states alike."
It's not clear how Sessions' policy change would impact California's nascent recreational marijuana market, scheduled to open for business under voter-approved Proposition 64 starting Jan. 1. Collins of the DPA says he doesn't believe Golden State weed purveyors are in trouble, at least for now.
"I don't think the marijuana trade is a target of this memo," he says. "But it doesn't look good for marijuana in the longer term."