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Walter Armstrong Walter Armstrong

How Will History Judge Attorney General Eric Holder’s Legacy on Drugs?

The nation's AG is to resign. Substance.com takes a look at his drug record and asks leading advocates for their views.

4 Substance

News of Attorney General Eric Holder’s resignation, effective as soon as a successor is confirmed by the Senate, broke today. During his six-year tenure, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer played a central role in almost every major US drug-related policy at a time when national views favoring legalization of marijuana and a demobilization of the drug war are on the rise.

Soon after taking office, in 2009, he ordered an end to aggressive Bush-era tactics against medical marijuana, including the raiding and prosecution of growers. After Colorado and Washington state legalized marijuana in 2012, he announced that he would not interfere with the new state practices by attempting to enforce federal pot prohibition laws.

Holder’s most enduring legacy in the drug war may be his sweeping reform of mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes, which have resulted in a 600% increase in the federal prison population, including a vastly disproportionate number among African-American and Latino young men. He ordered federal prosecutors not to seek long sentences for nonviolent drug criminals and revived the clemency power to apply to prisoners serving draconian sentences for nonviolent drug crimes committed in previous decades. On Monday he announced that the number of federal prisoners had decreased in 2013—the first fall since 1980. The effects of the liberalization of these sentencing policies and his bully-pulpiting against our nation’s enthusiasm for locking up young black men have been praised by advocates as a significant advance for the civil rights movement.

But Holder, the first African-American attorney general, quickly emerged in 2009 as the Obama administration’s biggest target for congressional Republicans and the anti-Obama base. In 2011, he was attacked over Operation Fast and Furious, a bungled gun-trafficking investigation by ATF agents started under the Bush administration that involved illegally selling guns to low-level drug traffickers and then attempting to trace their transfer to high-level Mexican cartel operators. After the murder of a US agent in which a Fast and Furious gun was used in 2011, the Republican-led House of Representatives conducted an investigation during which Holder refused to turn over justice department emails. In 2012, the House voted to hold him in contempt.

As drug cartels have become increasingly bloodthirsty and brutal, turning Mexico into a battleground, Holder oversaw increased cooperation between the Mexican and US governments, with a series of major strikes against traffickers. But when Holder called for the restoration of the ban on assault rifles, he was pilloried by the right wing and had to reverse himself. His habit of making such missteps, throwing fuel on the raging fires of partisan politics, is reportedly one of the reasons for his resignation today.

Substance.com asked some leading drug policy advocates and experts for their views on the Holder’s legacy:

“He was the first attorney general to take action against overincarceration, leading the fight against the crack-cocaine sentencing disparity and later announcing reduced use of mandatory minimum sentences and greater use of compassionate release from federal prison. But he didn’t appreciate that the 2013 medical marijuana policy memo from DAG Cole would be widely interpreted as federal permission for an unregulated free-for-all. He tried to sort of roll it back later, but it was too late. If you like the shape of the medical marijuana industry in the US today, this will be seen as a good thing about Holder’s tenure. If not, not.” —Keith Humphreys, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Stanford University School of Medicine 

“Attorney General Holder showed real leadership on the issue of reducing draconian sentencing and moving toward a public health approach to drugs. But he seemed to have no grasp of what his own scientists and leaders in law enforcement were saying about marijuana legalization. He bowed to perceived public support for legalization and seemed to not look at the data regarding how marijuana legalization negatively affects society.” —Kevin Sabet, Director, Drug Policy Institute and Assistant Professor, University of Florida College of Medicine, and a leader of SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana)

“Eric Holder will go down in history as the attorney general who began unwinding the war on drugs and steering our country away from mass incarceration. From rolling back punitive sentencing laws to letting sensible marijuana policies move forward, Attorney General Holder moved the US away from the failed policies of the past.” —Bill Piper, Director of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance (quoted in a DPA press release)