It’s Time to Fight “not a War on Drugs but a War on Drug Addiction”
Before I get started, I just want to address the news that broke last night. We all know that it is deeply disturbing. The President revealed highly-classified information to a foreign adversary, Russia. As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I know that the men and women of our intelligence community put their lives on the line every day and they do very dangerous work to keep our country safe.
In fact, just couple of weeks ago I traveled to Iraq and Jordan and saw first-hand many of the people who are serving at great peril to defend what we believe to be democratic values and to work for our country.
And they should not have to worry that anyone, much less the Commander in Chief, might carelessly put their lives in danger by divulging the intelligence that they’ve risked so much to collect, or damage essential relationships with our intelligence-sharing partners.
I believe it is time for my Republican colleagues to put country ahead of party and join us and hold this President accountable. And it is far past time that a special prosecutor be appointed to oversee the FBI’s investigation into Russia.
And so with everything going on, we also know that we must multitask. We’ve got to keep our eye on what’s happening with Russia and North Korea. We cannot lose sight of domestic policy either. Healthcare. Immigration. Climate change. And the rolling back of reforms in our criminal justice system.
So I’ve decided this morning, with everything going on, that I would talk a little bit about what’s going on in terms of our criminal justice system. And specifically because of this — our system of justice I think was shaken last Tuesday when the President, being aided and abetted by Jeff Sessions, fired FBI Director Jim Comey.
What got less attention, guys, and also threatens our system of justice, was a memo that the Attorney General issued the following day to federal prosecutors across the country.
The United States Department Of Justice memo was entitled “Department Charging and Sentencing Policy,” a subject line that seems pretty tame. However, what it effectively did was to declare the reviving of the War on Drugs. The failed War on Drugs.
And so let’s take a look at what Jeff Sessions’s outdated and out-of touch views are doing that are going to be harmful to our country.
Now many of you know my background on the subject and it was part of the introduction. I will tell you. As a young prosecutor right out of law school at the Alameda County DA’s office that Earl Warren once led, I started my work. And I saw the War on Drugs up close. And let me tell you — the War on Drugs was an abject failure.
It offered taxpayers a bad return on investment. It was bad for public safety. It was bad for budgets and our economy. And it was bad for people of color and those struggling to make ends meet.
Police officers and prosecutors dedicated extraordinary resources to non-violent drug offenses, which could otherwise have been devoted to unsolved homicides and violent crime.
There were so many of these non-violent drug cases that we would do “hand-offs” in a courthouse. We called them “hand-offs”, so that meant these young baby prosecutor, as we were called, would be handed a file of a possession case, a simple possession, and we’d have about 5 minutes to review it before we went to court. And then we would go in and argue for some sentence and that this person would be jailed.
During that time, and still, instead of focusing on prevention, we spent $80 billion a year in reaction. Locking people up. That’s money that obvioulsly could have gone to schools, to roads, or healthcare.
Instead of treating everyone the same, we created a system where Latinos are 2 times more likely than white men to be incarcerated for drug offenses. Where African Americans are 12% of the population, but about 60% of the drug offenders who are in our state prisons. Where when inmates get out, their criminal record makes it almost impossible for them to get a job, which of course traps them and their families in never-ending cycles of poverty.
The fact is, the War on Drugs did not work.
All these years after President Reagan created mandatory minimums, and Nancy Reagan told us to “Just Say No,” and President Clinton signed the “Three Strikes” law, illegal drug use is higher than it was at the height of the War on Drugs.
As San Francisco DA and then Attorney General of California, I was proud to be a part of a different approach. It’s what we called the Smart on Crime approach.
And the Obama administration similarly adopted and championed reforms at the federal level.
Which included directing prosecutors to avoid harsh sentences for low-level, non-violent offenders.
Which included reducing the disparity in penalties for possession of crack versus powder cocaine.
Which included creating a task force that they called a Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The emphasis being on 21st century.
But now this administration and Jeff Sessions want to take us back to the Dark Ages.
Sessions has threatened that the United States Department Of Justice may renew its focus on marijuana use, even in states like California where it is legal.
Well, let me tell you, what California needs, Jeff Sessions, we need support in dealing with transnational criminal organizations, dealing with issues like human trafficking. Not going after grandma’s medicinal marijuana. Leave her alone.
Sessions has overturned an Obama administration directive to phase out the use of private prisons. So now let’s be clear about private prisons. The business model is that you reap profit from incarcerating people. Let’s be clear about this, and let’s be clear, we should not be creating incentives to house people in prison. We should be creating incentives instead to shut the revolving door into prison.
And with last week’s memo, Sessions advocated that prosecutors seek the harshest sentence available, including an increased use of mandatory minimums. So instead of going after violent crime, drug cartels, and major traffickers, we’re worried about the neighborhood street-level dealer.
Let’s be clear about that. Instead of going after drug cartels, and violent crime, and major traffickers, he is calling for a renewed focus on essentially what is the neighborhood street-level drug dealer.
Instead of addressing the core issues of addiction and getting folks into treatment, we’re going to overcrowd and build more prisons.That is not justice. That is not smart on crime. And I believe we have to stop this.
And when I say “we,” guys, I don’t just mean CAP. I don’t mean just progressives. I mean everyone. Everyone has to be a part of stopping this. Because drug addiction, by the way, is color blind. It doesn’t see red or blue.
So here’s what I’m talking about. I started my career as a prosecutor in the 1990s, at the height of the crack epidemic. And I’m now starting my career as a United States Senator at the height of an opioid crisis. And folks, let me tell you: these crises have so much more in common than what separates them.
To illustrate this point, I pulled a bunch of headlines from over the years, which I’ll read. And I’m going to wonder, and I do wonder, if you’ll be able to distinguish which of these headlines is from the 1990s and which is from today? Which is about crack cocaine and which is about prescription drugs? Which is about an urban city and which is from Appalachia?:
“Surge of Addicts Strains Criminal Justice System”
“Addict Jailed for Endangering Her Daughter.”
“Addicted Parents Get Their Fix, Even With Children Watching.”
“How a mother and daughter who traded sex for drugs are beating addiction together.”
I’ll give you guys the answers later, but you can’t tell the difference.
And as you can see, this is not a Black and brown issue. This is not an urban and blue state issue. It has always been an American issue. And here’s the deal — our nation has had a longstanding, insatiable appetite for drugs. And we need to deal with that.
In 2015, opioids like Heroin and Fentanyl and OxyContin killed 33,000 Americans, in that one year. From New Hampshire to Utah to Kentucky. There was a heartbreaking headline that many of you may have seen earlier this year and it read: “Amid Opioid Overdoses, Ohio Coroner’s Office Runs Out of Room for Bodies.”
Opioids have taken the lives of coal miners struggling with back pain in West Virginia, and the son of a former Republican Congressman in Pennsylvania, and a mom who got addicted to painkillers after a C-section in San Francisco.
Drug addiction touches every community and every family in our country. And it is unfortunately a universal experience.
And to fight Jeff Sessions and his old-fashioned, discredited, and dangerous approach to drugs, I believe we must embrace what all regions have in common and build coalitions.
And I believe we have opportunities in front of us.
Conservatives like Senator Rand Paul have advocated for a better approach to drug addiction.
And 8 in 10 Americans who voted for Trump say criminal justice reform is important or very important to them.
So I believe there’s a real opportunity and the opportunity here is to break people out of the demographic boxes we’ve put them in.
The real opportunity is to make progress on a critical policy issue.
And there’s a real opportunity to reach parts of America that feel overlooked and don’t realize how much they have in common with people who might look very different.
So here’s what I think we need to fight for specifically.
We need a national drug policy that finally treats substance abuse not as a crime to be punished, but as a disease to be treated.
We need to build on reforms, instead of reviving mandatory minimums or boosting bottom lines for private prisons. We need to build on the reforms.
And we need to fund, not defund, the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
And we need this administration to understand that if they care about the opioid crisis in rural America, as they say they do, they have also got to care about the drug-addicted young man in Chicago or East LA.
And while I don’t believe in legalizing all drugs, as a career prosecutor I just don’t but I will tell you this, we need to do the smart thing and the right thing and finally decriminalize marijuana.
And finally, I believe we need to look locally and elect progressive prosecutors. Because the vast majority of prosecutions occur at the state and local level. There are leaders among us like Kim Foxx from Cook County, who grew up in public housing and knows we need a more balanced approach to criminal justice. There are leaders like John Chisholm, in the Milwaukee DA’s office, who’s working to reduce prison population while maintaining public safety. There are leaders like Kim Ogg, the DA in Harris County, Texas, who is saving taxpayers $10 million a year by sending people caught with a small amount of marijuana to a decision-making class instead of jail.
So even as we fight Jeff Sessions every step of the way here in DC, we should see these reformers and support them as innovators who are showing us what is possible.
And I believe this is the time that we look in mirror and ask who we are as a country on this issue of drug addiction. And the time is now to fight for the values we believe in.
And the time is to fight not a War on Drugs but a War on Drug Addiction, and to take make more effective and humane approaches to our fellow Americans who are suffering.