Barack Obama still enjoys a measure of love in certain drug-reform circles, an honor that’s sure to increase with time—and with every bellicose drug warrior Donald Trump names to his retrograde, Reagan-era worthy Cabinet. If not outright stolen valor, this is credit “earned” by doing nothing.
Marijuana reform moved forward several light-years during Obama’s two terms. This happened because Obama stood idly by and chose not to use the U.S. Justice Department to interfere as states legalized marijuana for adults over 21.
After the ensuing demonstration of the domino effect that would warm the stone hearts of the surviving architects of the Vietnam War, Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, now inherits a country too far gone toward legal marijuana for him to do anything about it—aside from fume, issue vague, baseless threats,and make a symbolic example or two out of the unluckiest among us.
Now is as good time as any to remember how good things weren’t under Obama.
Remember his first term, when his administration spent four years punishing marijuana crimes more often than offenses involving any other drug, including methamphetamine and heroin? You should. That’s what happened.
According to data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission crunched by the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, sentences for federal marijuana-related crimes reached a 10-year peak during Obama’s first term. In 2011, federal punishment was meted out to 7,000 marijuana offenders, compared to 6,000 cases involving cocaine and roughly 4,500 for methamphetamine and crack, respectively.
Things did get better: Both cannabis and crack stopped jamming the federal docket following sentencing reform.
Charges for marijuana-related crimes took a steep dive after 2012, when Washington and Colorado legalized cannabis (bringing about the current era, where there are too many cannabis businesses flagrantly violating federal law, while obeying state and local rules, for the feds to do anything about), and have been dropping every year since.
Now, several years after fake blue crystal meth became a popular party accessory, federal prosecutors are most concerned with meth, the caseload for which is almost at the level of marijuana during its Obama-era zenith.
In 2016, federal courts saw sentences meted out for nearly 6,800 meth offenses. Cocaine was next, with about 4,000; marijuana was third, with about 3,534, the vast majority of which involved trafficking, as the Post observed.
Only recently have sentences for heroin-related crimes begun to match the attention (and fear) devoted to the county’s opiate epidemic, which kills 13,000 people a year. In 2016, more than 2,800 people received federal punishment for heroin. No data was available for punishments to pharmaceutical companies or doctors for starting the mess by over-prescribing pharmaceutical painkillers… because aside from a few doctors popped for running prescription mills, that didn’t happen.
It’s worth noting that marijuana laws are now mostly enforced at the state and local level.
This is a good thing, because federal mandatory minimums requiring 10-year prison terms for a certain number of cannabis plants or a certain amount of marijuana (sold legally over the counter at a dispensary) no longer apply. At the same time, almost 1.5 million people were arrested for “drug abuse violations” in 2015, the most-recent year for which national arrest data is available. One-third of those were marijuana busts.
The war on weed may be on its way out, but it’s still alive and well, just as it was under Barack Obama.
One last stat.
Drug offenders in America do get a day in court, but it’s generally only a day, and not a trial: More than 97 percent of defendants in federal drug offenses accept plea deals and never go to trial. The reasons for this are twofold. One, prosecutors don’t want to take a case to trial. It’s easier and cheaper to get a plea deal. And two, federal mandatory minimums are so harsh that many defendants will gladly take a reduced sentence rather than go through the ultimately pointless ritual of a trial.
America’s federal justice system is still drug-obsessed.