Drug Warriors in Retreat

At least when it comes to low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, both parties have lost their appetite for locking the cell and tossing the key.


When it comes to Eric Holder, Republicans are divided between the radicals and the moderates. One group regards him as a lawless black power zealot intent on subverting the Constitution and stripping us of our liberties. Then there are the radicals…

So when Holder gave a speech announcing that the Justice Department would minimize the use of stiff mandatory sentences in some drug cases, it was reasonable to expect a storm of protests from Republicans accusing him of flooding our streets with crack dealers and meth heads.

Instead, the response bordered on the soporific. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, reported Politico, gently suggested that the administration "work with Congress on policies it wants to implement instead of consistently going around it." Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, who has previously called for criminal prosecution of Holder, echoed Cruz's view, while admitting that "reducing mandatory minimums may be good policy."

Instead of tepid criticism, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky offered outright praise, calling the change "a welcome development." Hardly anyone in the GOP cared to defend the merciless approach. At least when it comes to low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, both parties have lost their appetite for locking the cell and tossing the key.

The drug war has often been called another Vietnam—an expensive, destructive and losing campaign that has gone on far too long because politicians couldn't admit error. Vietnam eventually did come to an end. Holder's new policy may not actually affect many cases—the Justice Department so far has been unable to come up with a number. But it offers the latest indicator that the drug war will, as well.

Americans were already inching toward the exits. Last year, Washington and Colorado voted to legalize the sale and use of marijuana for recreational purposes.

Several other states are likely to have ballot initiatives in 2016. Twenty-one permit medical use of cannabis.
Sixteen have decriminalized pot use. No one shows any powerful desire to reverse the tide.

Even many conservatives who have no use for legalization see the need for a different approach. In 2010, some of them founded the group Right on Crime, which favors a drug policy based less on punishment and more on rehabilitation.

In the old days, a person who took that view was called a "liberal" or perhaps a "hippie." That many leading Republican officeholders have embraced it suggests that the logic of the anti-drug crusade has lost its persuasive power.

Marc Levin, policy director of Right on Crime, which is affiliated with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, believes this new approach fits with conservative principles like "limited government, personal responsibility, and recognition that people can change and be redeemed."

In an email, he said, "The research and experiences in many states have demonstrated that it is possible to both enhance public safety and reduce costs to taxpayers by redirecting many low-risk, low-level drug possession offenders into alternatives to incarceration that hold them accountable, break their habit, and enable them to hold down a job and be productive."

Texas, he says, has sharply reduced the number of drug offenders in lockup and saved $2 billion by closing prisons instead of building them. But the crime rate is lower than it's been since 1968. Republican governors in Georgia, Pennsylvania and Ohio have pushed similar reforms.

Mark Kleiman, a UCLA professor and author of "When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment," notes that one of the founders of Right on Crime was Newt Gingrich. During the 2012 presidential campaign, he marvels, Mitt Romney hit Gingrich on many issues, "but he never hit him on that. He obviously didn't think it was a vulnerability—in a Republican primary."

The 2012 party platform, in fact, endorsed "new approaches to curbing drug abuse and diverting first-time offenders to rehabilitation."

Chronic failure has a way of changing minds. For all the resources poured into drug law enforcement in the last three decades, drugs remain widely available. In April, a poll by the Pew Research Center found that for the first time ever, a majority of Americans now favor legalizing marijuana—up from 16 percent in 1990.

As Kleiman told me, "The agitated delirium about drugs and crime that has gripped this country since the 1970s is finally going away." Even a drug-induced haze can't last forever.