Obama Just Took One Big Step Towards Stopping the War on Drugs


The news: U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to pardon "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of federal drug inmates before leaving office. That number might not seem so big. But it's historic in executive terms. In fact, reports indicate that the potential number will be well above the norm for an outgoing president and may even approach levels not seen since President Gerald Ford gave mass clemency to draft dodgers after the Vietnam War.

According to Yahoo News, the initiative to pardon non-violent drug offenders will be so big that "administration officials are preparing a series of personnel and process changes to help them manage the influx of petitions they expect Obama to approve." Those include reorganizing the office responsible for handling petitions and the expected resignation of Ronald Rodgers, the attorney in charge of the office who was accused of mishandling a drug-related petition in 2012.

"There's all this bipartisan reform going on, but you have these people down there in their own little insular world and they just don't get it," a senior administration official told Yahoo News of the pardon attorney's office. Multiple people interviewed by the agency experienced skepticism that the office was capable of processing the thousands of clemency requests such a mass pardon would force it to handle. But earlier this month White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler announced that the administration would be seeking appropriate candidates for the pardoning or commutation process, in particular asking for "non-violent" offenders.

Who will benefit from this? The president has already given some indications on the type of offenders he's looking to free: non-violent drug offenders. In December he commuted the sentences of eight federal inmates convicted on charges of non-violent crimes involving crack cocaine, citing unfair sentencing guidelines. And earlier this month he officially announced through Attorney General Eric Holder that he would be willing to work with Congress to remove marijuana from its Schedule I status under the Controlled Substances Act, though he fell short of saying Holder would use his power unilaterally.

And the justice system is ripe for reform. PolicyMic's Laura Dimon pointed out that the U.S. federal prison system has been called a "new racial caste system," with shocking numbers of African-American men behind bars for low-level drug offenses.

Image Credit: The Sentencing Project

As Dimon noted, "three out of four young black men in Washington, D.C., can expect to serve time behind bars," despite statistics demonstrating that people of all races use and sell drugs at the same rate. African-Americans comprised 12% of regular drug users, but almost 40% of those arrested for drug offenses. More people are behind bars today for drug offenses than were in 1980 for all types of crimes combined, and a first-time drug offense currently carries an average sentence of five to 10 years. In most other developed countries, similar crimes would result in a maximum of six months, if the offense was even considered serious enough to warrant jail time.

Reefer Madness: And marijuana prohibition, which accounted for nearly 80% of the spike in arrests throughout the 1990s, did much of the damage. Furthermore, the war on weed has been predominantly used to lock up black people.

Image Credit: The Washington Post

Hopefully the president will consider these alarming statistics when preparing his clemency program. Although Obama will be restricted from pardoning state-level prisoners, on whom the majority of drug convictions have fallen (that job falls to governors), he can use his considerable power to release the thousands of federal prisoners serving unfair sentences for non-violent, low-level drug crimes.