Drug Policy

New Federal Sentencing Data Provides a Reminder That the War on Meth Is Alive and Awful

While overall drug sentences decline, federal methamphetamine offenders still aren't benefiting from the last decade of criminal justice reforms.


Federal judges continued to hand down fewer mandatory minimums for drug offenses in 2016, according to data released Monday by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The trend, which began with the launch of the Justice Department's Smart on Crime initiative in 2014, is a result of federal prosecutors bringing less onerous charges. Of the 19,787 federal drug sentences handed down in 2016, 55 percent were guideline sentences, rather than mandatory minimums. In fiscal year 2010, only 35 percent of more than 24,000 federal drug sentences were not mandatory minimums.

The Smart on Crime initiative clearly had an impact. But it was small and will likely be short-lived. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is reportedly preparing a memo to federal prosecutors regarding drug charging. Sessions has blamed the increase in heroin use on the decline in the Bureau of Prisons population, so I'm guessing his forthcoming memo will instruct prosecutors to resume bringing the maximum charge in federal drug cases. That means more mandatory minimums.

The USSC's data reveals another noteworthy trend: Federal methamphetamine offenders continue to see very little benefit from the last decade's worth of various criminal justice reforms:


(Charts made using Infogr.am with data pulled from the 2009-2016 USSC sourcebooks)

To summarize those charts: Federal drug sentences, both mandatory minimums and guidelines, are falling for every drug but meth. But you wouldn't know it from the national conversation we're currently having about drugs.

It's useful to compare crack and meth in particular. Both have fancier siblings that tend to get less panicky coverage (powder cocaine and prescription amphetamines, respectively); both are used and sold largely by low-income people; and both–up until 2010–required incredibly small quantities to trigger their corresponding mandatory minimums.

Starting in 1986, five grams of crack cocaine triggered the same federal five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence as five grams of pure methamphetamine or 50 grams of a mixture containing any amount of methamphetamine. With the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, the minimum quantity of crack cocaine necessary for a five-year mandatory minimum was raised to 28 grams; the minimum quantity for methamphetamine remains five grams. (Five grams, as my former colleagues at Families Against Mandatory Minimums like to point out, is the equivalent of five packets of sugar.)

Why did we change the law for crack but not meth? Well, sentences for crack and powder cocaine had–still have, in fact–a gross disparity. An offender needed 500 grams of powder cocaine, which is sold by every race of offender, to trigger the same sentence as five grams of crack cocaine, which continues to be sold mostly by black offenders. Congress reduced that gap in 2010 to bring some racial justice to the federal criminal code. And that's good. I'll cheer for mercy by any means.

But no legislator has campaigned for extending the same consideration to meth offenders, even though many of the people who sell meth do so to pay for their habits, and we are supposedly living in an era of treatment, not punishment. This is why I cringe a little when critics claim that legislators are responding to opioids more compassionately than they did to crack because opioids are a white drug and crack is a black drug. There is much truth to that observation, but let's not forget that meth–despite its rising popularity as a party drug among gay urbanites–remains a very white and rural drug, and we are taking pounds of flesh from the people who sell it.

From the late 1990s through the late 2000s, every big media outlet probably ran at least one story decrying the meth epidemic. While you don't see as many of those reports now, I've yet to see outlets go the other way, with long, humanizing features challenging draconian sentences for non-violent meth dealers like Mandy Martinson and Melissa Trigg. I wonder why that is?

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  1. Sessions has blamed the increase in heroin use on the decline in the Bureau of Prisons population, so I’m guessing his forthcoming memo will instruct prosecutors to resume bringing the maximum charge in federal drug cases.

    If so, this really smacks to me of Rawls from The Wire, a focus on stat reduction rather than anything else.

    1. “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

  2. I would just love to know how the war on drugs has made anybody safer mister jeff session i dont like drugs of any kind and have never even smoked pot but I’ve lost more than one family member to this war,it just puts people in more danger,now some died from drug use but and this is no joke at least two were found in a field and one went to Mexico and was tortured to death and I’m white we cant let this continue

    1. Condolences if you’re serious, but this is the funniest comment i’ve read in a long time.

      at least two were found in a field and one went to Mexico and was tortured to death and I’m white we cant let this continue

      [pees a little]

      1. I’m serious but its cool i only knew my cousin that was tortured what I’ve heard is his aunt was supposed to go but he wanted to go to cancun which is where the pick up was so she let him go

        1. Good luck out there kid. You’re on the right track. We can’t keep letting our communities suffer at the hands of this drug war because people can’t face up to the fact that their friends and relatives have responsibility for their own behavior. They’re not doing right by those people anyway, making excuses for them like that. And they’re taking us all down with them with their stupid drug war, because they’re too weak to face the truth about their loved ones.

          1. Whoa what a late comment! How did I end up here, man?

  3. I highly recommend Chuck’s BBQ in Opelika

    Order it “chipped on the block”.

    They’re located right across the street from the police station.

    1. Supposed to go in the Opelika police shooting thread.

      Interestingly, firefox wants to substitute “apelike” for Opelika. Seems pretty fucking racist.

  4. Sessions is so inept and overtly ignorant that he may as well be a caricature of an evil politician. No rational human being can look at 30 years worth of drug war data and conclude that lack of enforcement is why people do drugs.

    Poor people abuse meth cuz it’s cheap, and it gets you high as fuck, so you don’t care so much that you are poor. That is not really a great way to boost one’s self-esteem, but neither is locking that person away for a decade.

    1. nor does it help the economy. That person is now a net loss of 50,000 a year sitting in prison.

  5. Drug warriors gotta warrior!

    Let me see your war face mutherfuckers!

  6. There are drugs and there are drugs. Meth addiction is awful. “Even those meth users who go to rehab have a long-term success rate of just 12%, says a new study.” See the many sites that have pictures of people before and after meth addiction.

    People who sell this poison are no better than murderers. They are committing slow, drawn out homicide.

    1. Ah! A mystical Ree-publican sockpuppet makes its presence known by spouting idiocy.
      Amphetamines–stimulants in general–are not addictive, but fools get infatuated with the darndest things–including bribery and graft and anonymous “new studies.” People who send men with guns out to ban competitors of this poison are accessories to murder and complicity in government corruption.

  7. Amphetamines, like caffeine, are central nervous system stimulants. The coffee industry can afford to buy cords of legislators, news outlets, televangelist pastors, cop unions, prosecutors and lawyers. Mark Train bet on the wrong horse when he planned to get rich importing coca from South America. The Coffee bosses got here fustest with the mostest an bought up all the graft.

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