I asked several drug policy reform groups for a statement on Obama's nomination of Eric Holder to head up the Justice Department. The consensus seemed to be mild disappointment tempered with cautious optimism that despite his recent staff selections, Obama will keep his campaign promises to end the federal raids on medical marijuana dispensaries and work to ameliorate the discrepancy in crack/powder cocaine sentencing.
I think this is about right. In Rahm Emanuel, Joe Biden, and now Holder, Obama has already picked some pretty aggressive drug warriors for top positions. That's troubling only to the extent that their positions on federal drug policy factored into his decision to choose them. I doubt that it played a role with any of the three.
All three will of course be advising Obama. And I'd rather have less draconian aides whispering in his ear. But if Obama has designs on changing federal drug policy, he'll do so. Neither Biden, nor Holder, nor Emanuel can stop him. Who Obama ends up choosing to head up the DEA and ONDCP will be a far better indicator of whether he intends to continue the Bush administration's aggressive prosecution of the drug war, or if he's looking at a more tempered approach.
My prediction? He'll call off the medical marijuana raids. Anything more would be a pleasant surprise. And even that will be offset by his insistence on resurrecting harmful criminal justice block grant programs.
The ACLU's Drug Law Reform Project declined to comment. But here's what other drug policy reform advocates had to say:
Aaron Houston, director of government relations, Marijuana Policy Project
Holder's record from a dozen years ago is concerning, but we expect President-elect Obama to keep his pledge to end federal raids in medical marijuana states, and that the Obama administration will not rerun the Clinton administration's terrible medical marijuana policies. One in four Americans now lives in a medical marijuana state, and medical marijuana outpolled Obama in Michigan by six points. Medical marijuana states, including Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, were essential to Obama's victory, and continuing a federal war against a quarter of the country would make no sense.
Bill Piper, director of of national affairs, Drug Policy Alliance
Holder seems really knowledgeable about the ways the war on terror infringes on civil liberties and how that undermines law enforcement, but seems to have a blindspot when it comes to the war on drugs, which also infringes on civil liberties and undermines law enforcement (probably more so than the war on terror). President-elect Obama doesn't have this blindspot so there's room for hope. America needs an Attorney General who will stand behind Obama's promises to end the DEA's medical marijuana raids in California, eliminate the crack/powder disparity, repeal the federal syringe ban and begin treating drug use as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue.
Julie Stewart, president, Families Against Mandatory Minimums
FAMM's experience with Eric Holder has been limited primarily to executive clemencies granted during the Clinton administration and that experience was generally a good one. Holder was Deputy Attorney General when nearly two dozen nonviolent drug offenders serving harsh and excessive sentences were granted much-deserved commutations at the end of President Clinton's term. Although Holder is most well-known for his opinion regarding the Marc Rich pardon, he presumably reviewed and recommended in favor of commuting the sentences of the drug offenders, too, who have gone on to lead productive and law-abiding lives. Hopefully, his experience as Deputy Attorney General will motivate him to take an active role as Attorney
General in ensuring that clemency requests are processed in an efficient manner and that real and meaningful review is given to all cases, which is currently not happening.
Holder's past positions on mandatory minimum sentences give pause. As the U.S. Attorney in Washington, DC in 1996 he advocated for mandatory sentences of 18 months to six years for selling drugs – including marijuana. (Thankfully, the DC City Council did not adopt his proposal.) FAMM will give him the benefit of the doubt and hope that in the ensuing dozen years he has developed a more comprehensive view of sentencing policy that gives the courts the reasoned discretion they need to sentence individuals according to their culpability. Confirmation hearings should flesh out his current position on sentencing policy.
Allen St. Pierre, executive director, NORML
NORML has serious concerns about the choice of Eric Holder as the next Attorney General because he has a long history of opposing drug policy reforms, perceiving cannabis smoking by adults as a public nuisance worthy of constant harassment, promoting violent governmental intervention into the private lives of citizens who consume cannabis, supporting mandatory minimum sentencing and so-called civil forfeiture laws.
His attraction to the myth of 'fixing broken windows' and using law enforcement to crack down on petty crimes will swell an already overburdened, bloated, expensive and failed government prohibition against otherwise law-abiding citizens who choose to consume cannabis.