Eric Holder: “The Drug War…Is Over”

Frontline has published an extensive interview Jason Breslow conducted with Eric Holder. In it, the former Attorney General discusses his intentions when assuming that office to make some fundamental shifts in how the Justice Department had been approaching crime for the last 30-40 years. He said that he began discussing these issues with then-Senator Obama prior to the 2008 election and always had his support while implementing them as Attorney General (see: Smart on Crime). Holder also said that if this Congress fails to pass criminal justice reform, he’d be ashamed of this nation.

But it was the discussion at the end of the interview that I found the most forward-looking.

Is the drug war over?

The drug war I think is over. Certainly calling it the drug war should be over. But the battle against the narcotics problem in this country has to go on. But we need to take some different approaches, and it should not all be seen as just a criminal justice problem. It ought to be seen as a public health issue. …

So what is that new approach? What do we need to be doing?

We need to think about dealing with people who have addictions in ways that we have not. We can’t put them in jail and think that that’s going to cure their addictions. We have to come up with public health responses in that regard. We have to come up with ways in which those people who engage in the narcotics trade are dealt with in a more fair way. …

If we need to treat this as a public health problem, why then wouldn’t we be talking more seriously about decriminalization?

I think that certainly that ought to be a part of the conversation. You know, where do we want to be as a nation? Now, there’s certain drugs I just can’t see. It’s hard for me to imagine ever decriminalizing crack cocaine, drugs like that. But the whole question of should marijuana be decriminalized, I mean, that’s a conversation I think that we should engage in.

Do you think it should be decriminalized?

I certainly think it ought to be rescheduled. You know, we treat marijuana in the same way that we treat heroin now, and that clearly is not appropriate. So at a minimum, I think Congress needs to do that. Then I think we need to look at what happens in Colorado and what happens in Washington.

I realize that for a lot of people, this kind of conversation has been a long time coming. But to have the former Attorney General of the United States talking about the “war on drugs” being over, suggesting that this needs to be treated as a public health issue, and that marijuana should be rescheduled (and possibly decriminalized) is an absolute sea-change from where we were just 10 years ago.

I doubt that the issues Holder addressed in this interview will be the top priority for the majority of people in this upcoming election. But they need to be on the table. It is important to think about what kind of person the candidates would pick to be our next Attorney General.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.