U.S. Drug Enforcement Policy from Rockefeller to Sessions

By Patrick Gleeson, Ph. D., Registered Investment Adv ; Updated June 13, 2017
Prisoner wearing handcuffs

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has called for a return to maximum sentences and mandatory minimums for drug violations. Here is a look at the history of tough drug enforcement policies in this country, along with arguments supporting and opposing them.

A Summary of U.S. Drug Enforcement Policies from Rockefeller to George W. Bush

In 1973, New York State Governor Nelson Rockefeller – responding to increasing public unease over a perceived "drug epidemic" first named by President Richard Nixon – initiated stringent anti-drug policies that included longer sentences and mandatory minimums. In 1986, Congress passed the "Anti-Abuse Drug Act" which called for similar drug enforcement and prosecution at the federal level. In 1994, Washington State passed the "Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act," which called for mandatory life sentences for a third "serious" felony. Other states soon followed with similar or even tougher "three-strikes" legislation. In some states, possession of as little as a quarter ounce of marijuana was deemed a serious felony. In one instance, a man convicted of a single drug sale was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences.

U.S. Crime Rates Plummet

Beginning in the early 1990s and continuing in 2017, crime rates in the U.S. have fallen to a significant degree. A survey by the National Crime Victimization Center, for example, noted that the rate of violent crime has declined from 79.8 victims per thousand in 1993 to 23.2 in 2015. Supporters of tough drug laws generally conclude that they have have been important contributors to this improving trend, a conclusion underlined, according to a 2004 study, by popular media, which most often attribute the decline in violent crime to "innovative" policing strategies, increased imprisonment and heavy penalties for the use of crack cocaine. From this perspective, the war on drugs appears to be effective.

The "War on Drugs"

Proponents of the "war on drugs" often cite reduced addiction rates as its ultimate goal. If so, the war hasn't been won. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the addiction rate has remained steady at about 1.3 percent of the population from 1970 to 2010. What has increased, dramatically, is the cost of the U.S. "war on drugs." Over the same period, according to The Centre for Drug Policy, federal and state costs of attempting to control drug use by legislating against it have risen about 1,000 percent.

Buyer's Remorse

For many years following Rockefeller's original crackdown, calls by politicians for tougher drug laws offered a reliable path to both state and federal election. By 2008, however, citizen groups, some of them conservative, were beginning to object both to the cost of the drug war and to the lack of any meaningful result.

Liberal critics also began noting how the "war on drugs" could also be called a "war on minorities." African Americans, for instance, were being given draconian sentences for crack cocaine use, despite the fact that the crack cocaine used more often in black communities and the powdered variety more often used by whites were chemically identical. In the same vein, the "innovative" policing strategies cited by drug war proponents were generally used in black communities. Many of them, such as the notorious "stop and frisk" policies that began in New York, were arguably violations of constitutional rights. Michelle Alexander, among others, has called the adverse effect of these policies on minorities as "The New Jim Crow."

The consequences of these increasingly tough drug laws and enforcement were predictable and, for many, hard to justify. Not only did drug enforcement costs soar out of control, so did the U.S. prison population, which, as critics like Alexander have noted, is unprecedented both for its exponential rate of increase and for the overall numbers of citizens imprisoned – more than any other country in the world. The U.S., for example, imprisons its citizens at a rate about five times that in Britain.

From 2008 through 2016, public approval of the war on drugs began to decline. There were many academic studies as well was a growing recognition by the public that incarceration and drug addiction were "discorrelated" – a fancy economics term meaning one has nothing to do with the other. There were increasing calls for lowering incarceration costs by reducing the U.S. prison population. Several states made serious efforts to reduce their prison populations, especially those imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses.

Back to the Beginning

The 2017 appointment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions has reversed this moderating trend. Sessions believes that the early 21st century trend toward reducing the severity of drug sentences was a serious mistake and has called or maximizing sentences for all drug crimes, including use of marijuana. In the Summer of 2017, it is too early to tell what real effect Sessions' views will have on Federal drug enforcement policy. During his confirmation hearing before the Senate he did say – regarding his drug enforcement policies – that he would "follow the law." If Americans didn't want him to enforce laws against marijuana use and sale, he said, it "was up to them to change them."

Time will tell.

About the Author

Patrick Gleeson received a doctorate in 18th century English literature at the University of Washington. He served as a professor of English at the University of Victoria and was head of freshman English at San Francisco State University. Gleeson is the director of technical publications for McClarie Group and manages an investment fund. He is a Registered Investment Advisor.