Eric Holder Wrongly Thinks that the Drug War is Over


Somehow former Attorney General Eric Holder, the first African American to hold the position, stated in an interview with Frontline that he thinks that the Drug War is over. I’m guessing that the Drug War doesn’t seem over to the nonviolent citizens still in prison for marijuana and other substances, or their families. A lot of media attention has covered Holder’s statement that he now supports reclassifying marijuana on the list of federally controlled substances, but it is rather absurd that he told Frontline that he believes the War on Drugs has ended:

The drug war I think is over. Certainly calling it the drug war should be over. But the battle against the narcotics problem in this country has to go on. But we need to take some different approaches, and it should not all be seen as just a criminal justice problem. It ought to be seen as a public health issue. …

It’s heartening for me to see, for instance, how this nation has reacted to the heroin problem that we’re now seeing around the country, where we are coming up with public health responses to it as opposed to simply taking people who are addicted to heroin, throwing them in jail and not dealing with the underlying problems that caused that addiction in the first place.

In addition to stating that he believes cannabis should be removed from Schedule I, the same federal schedule as heroin, Holder also said that our nation should have a “conversation” regarding the decriminalization of marijuana. However, he didn’t think that it would be appropriate to decriminalize “hard” drugs, contrary to the “new approach” to drugs that he told Frontline our nation needs:

We need to think about dealing with people who have addictions in ways that we have not. We can’t put them in jail and think that that’s going to cure their addictions. We have to come up with public health responses in that regard. We have to come up with ways in which those people who engage in the narcotics trade are dealt with in a more fair way.

While progress was made under Holder’s tenure in the Obama Administration, certainly more could have been done to stop the harmful consequences of cannabis prohibition and the greater Drug War. In a speech before the National Press Club just over a year ago, then-Attorney General Holder put the scheduling of marijuana squarely and solely upon Congress, ignoring his own executive power.

As Tom Angell over at notes, the former Attorney General could have directed the federal government to begin reviewing the proper federal schedule for marijuana, but he failed to do so before leaving office. While rescheduling marijuana to Schedule II, as Hillary Clinton supports,would have some benefits, the proper policy is to follow Bernie Sanders’ lead and treat cannabis like we do alcohol and remove marijuana from the list of scheduled substances altogether, as supported by former Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders.

This war on “some drugs” continues to decimate communities of color and poor people regardless of race as too many people are having their lives ruined by prohibition. A vast majority of drug arrests are for marijuana, so Holder’s evolution on cannabis is welcomed, but he needs to evolve on other drugs as well before we can declare a peace in our nation’s longest war. Until we stop arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning nonviolent citizens for substances they choose to put in their bodies, the failed Drug War continues.

Anthony Johnson

Anthony, a longtime cannabis law reform advocate, was Chief Petitioner and co-author of Measure 91, Oregon's cannabis legalization effort. He served as director of both the New Approach Oregon and Vote Yes on 91 PACs, the political action committees responsible for the state's legalization campaign. As director of New Approach Oregon, Anthony continues to work towards effectively implementing the cannabis legalization system while protecting small business owners and the rights of patients. He sits on the Oregon Marijuana Rules Advisory Committee and fights for sensible rules at the legislature as well as city councils and county commissions across the state. Anthony helps cannabis business comply with Oregon's laws and advises advocates across the country. He also serves as content director of both the International Cannabis Business Conference and the Oregon Marijuana Business Conference, helping share the vision of moving the cannabis industry forward in a way that maintains the focus on keeping people out of prison and protecting patients. He was a member of the Oregon Health Authority Rules Advisory Committee, assisting the drafting of the administrative rules governing Oregon’s state-licensed medical marijuana facilities. He first co-authored and helped pass successful marijuana law reform measures while a law student at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law. He passed the Oregon Bar in 2005 and practiced criminal defense for two years before transitioning to working full-time in the political advocacy realm. His blogs on Marijuana Politics are personal in nature and don't speak for or reflect the opinions of any group or organization.