Two members of a criminal justice task force organized by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and former rival Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) recently discussed why they feel the criminalization of marijuana is an untenable policy, with one—a former U.S. attorney general—suggesting that even drugs such as opioids and cocaine should be removed from the criminal justice system’s purview.
Another member, who is also a former federal prosecutor, argued that the former vice president’s proposal to decriminalize marijuana is insufficient and should be replaced with a call for broader cannabis legalization.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder said in a C-SPAN appearance last week that racial disparities in drug enforcement have long been a problem, and the solution is to treat such offenses as a public health issue rather than a criminal justice one.
“Think about the crack epidemic and how we dealt with it there. We made it a criminal justice problem, we prosecuted people, we put people in jail,” he said. “Now we’re dealing with the opioid situation and now we’ve declared it—and I think correctly so and I’m not saying this is wrong—but we declared it a public health problem. Two different bodies of people—people perceived as being involved in crack, the use of crack and the use of opioids. It’s a racial component there.”
“I’d like to be able to take out of the system those kinds of determinations and to put law enforcement in places that are needed. But we tend to, again, because of implicit biases, deploy law enforcement to a much greater degree in African American communities and communities of color, which results in disparity when it comes to arrest rates.”
Holder said cannabis represents another example of the problem because “African Americans and whites use marijuana at roughly the same levels, yet you’re four times more likely to go to jail using marijuana if you are a person of color, if you’re black as opposed to if you’re white.”
“If I could change anything, I’d want to take all of that stuff out of the system,” he said. “I think we have the possibility now, given all the protests that we have seen.”
While Holder didn’t explicitly use the words “legalization” or “decriminalization” to describe his views on how drugs should be handled, those polices would generally be implicated when taking them “out of the system” of law enforcement. The former attorney general has previously said he would vote to legalize marijuana if he were in Congress, though he declined to reclassify the drug under federal law when he had the power to do so during his time leading the Justice Department.