Speaking on a drug policy panel hosted by Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder was encouraged that addiction is being treated as a public health matter, drug laws are becoming more lenient, and the country is “clearly on the path to decriminalizing marijuana” at the federal level.
Holder acknowledged that the war on drugs has cost people their livelihood and taxpayer dollars but also voiced concerns about decriminalizing other illicit substances like heroin and cocaine.
“I have a difficult time trying to think about the decriminalization of other drugs,” Holder said, “given the fact that you see the negative impact that the use of these drugs has on people individually and then, individuals banding together, a negative impact on society at large.”
Holder argued for “substantially lower” penalties for drug-related offenses, more discretion for judges to deal with drug cases individually, and the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for these types of crimes.
While Holder’s Justice Department issued the “Cole memo” in 2013 that discouraged federal prosecutors from going after people acting in compliance with state-legal cannabis laws, activists have pointed out that, at the same time, he declined to initiate the process to reschedule marijuana federally.
Holder defended this by citing the political necessity for lawmakers running for reelection not wanting to be seen as “soft on crime” for embracing broad reform. The so-called Cole memo was rescinded by Jeff Sessions, President Trump’s first attorney general, perhaps for that very reason.
But Holder sees the bigger picture that necessitates marijuana reform. “We need to move marijuana from Schedule I so research can be done,” he said. “It is classified now on the same level as heroin is, and clearly that is inappropriate.”
Holder, activist Piper Kerman, Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, and U.S. District Chief Judge Algenon Marbley all agreed that racial inequities in drug enforcement underscore the need for wide-ranging reform.
“I think that the trend throughout the nation is that many, if not most, states allow medicinal marijuana, and those states that don’t yet have recreational marijuana are trending that way – and they have significantly decriminalized marijuana,” Marbley said. “I think that it’s time for the feds to get on board.”
Despite having a hand in crafting the punitive drug laws as a senator, and remaining opposed to adult-use legalization, President Biden has embraced rescheduling cannabis, decriminalizing at the federal level, and letting states set their marijuana policies. Nearly 30 Congressmembers signed a letter last month urging the president to grant amnesty to nearly 20,000 people in the federal prison system – including those with drug convictions.
As Senate leadership continues finalizing a comprehensive reform bill, members of the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill last week to federally legalize marijuana. The House also recently voted in favor of a defense spending bill that includes an amendment that protects banks servicing state-legal cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.