Barack Obama's selection of Eric Holder as his attorney general is a very discouraging sign for anyone who hoped the new administration would de-escalate the war on drugs. As Dave Weigel noted earlier today, Holder pushed for stiffer marijuana penalties when he was the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, and the details are strikingly at odds not only with Obama's signals regarding marijuana but with his opposition to long sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. According to a December 1996 report in The Washington Times excerpted at TalkLeft, Holder wanted "minimum sentences of 18 months for first-time convicted drug dealers, 36 months for the second time and 72 months for every conviction thereafter." He also wanted to "make the penalty for distribution and possession with intent to distribute marijuana a felony, punishable with up to a five-year sentence." The D.C. Council made the latter Holder-endorsed change in 2000. Holder thought New York City's irrational, unjust crackdown on pot smokers was a fine idea and worth emulating, saying "we have too long taken the view that what we would term to be minor crimes are not important." His rhetoric on the seriousness of marijuana offenses was indistinguishable from that of the most zealous Republican drug warrior:
The truth of the matter is that marijuana is a significant problem for the city….Crack cocaine still drives most of the violence in this city, but marijuana violence is increasing. We need to nip it in the bud.
Four years later, when he was the deputy attorney general, Holder talked up the Clinton administration's alleged drug war victories during a weekly briefing (also quoted by TalkLeft):
We've made some major inroads in the drug problem but we don't have—I mean, if you think back there was a Time magazine article I remember on—a cover story on cocaine and—this was sometime back in the late '80s—and at that point, I remember reading the article and the article seemed to indicate that, you know, it was [a] drug being used by the middle class and that there were not many consequences for that use. We obviously know that that is not true now….
Certainly, I think, as opposed to the late '80s and the early '90s, I think consumption is down.
Holder's memory was a little fuzzy. According to the Monitoring the Future Study (which I'm using because it provides comparable data throughout the period), illegal drug use among teenagers was substantially higher in 2000 than in the early 1990s. In 2000 nearly 25 percent of high school seniors reported past-month use of an illegal drug, compared to 16.4 percent in 1991. It's hard to believe Holder was not aware of this trend, since it was the focus of Republican claims that the Clinton administration was soft on drugs.
And what Time cover story did Holder have in mind? Presumably it was this one, which appeared in July 1981, not "the late 1980s":
Contrary to Holder's gloss, the story is replete with warnings about cocaine's hazards. The subhead reads: "The 'all-American drug' has hit like a blizzard, with casualties rising." Here is the last sentence of the nut graph: "Largely unchecked by law enforcement, a veritable blizzard of the white powder is blowing through the American middle class, and it is causing significant social and economic shifts no less than a disturbing drug problem."
Holder's confusion about the date when this allegedly cocaine-friendly story appeared is significant because it erroneously places the article in the middle of the first Bush administration, with the implication that Clinton has been more serious about fighting the war on drugs (a laughable notion to anyone who remembers George H.W. Bush's apocalytpic baggie-of-crack speech or the zealousness of his drug czar, William Bennett). But the article actually appeared less than six months into the Reagan administration, when the pharmacological naivité Holder claims it displayed could be seen as residue from the Carter era, soon to be washed away by Reagan's enthusiastic prosecution of the drug war. In short, Holder's false anecdote about the Time cover story, along with his bogus claim about drug use trends, suggests he epitomizes the Clinton administration's desperation to prove that a Democrat who used to smoke pot can too be tough on drugs—precisely the motivation that could make Obama just as bad on drug policy as the current administration, if not worse.