Holder Orders More Reasonable Drug Policies


This week U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a change in policy that could offer some benefit to people charged with federal drug crimes. Make no mistake, these are policy directives only and not federal law – and their impact is likely to be minimal. In fact, I’m not even sure that we will see a real change. Nonetheless, it is at least a start in reforming our unfair, arbitrary, expensive, and self-defeating federal drug laws. Here is what Holder said he would do:

* Direct US Attorneys to develop local strategies for determining “when federal charges should be filed, and when they should not.” This may mean that local prosecutors should use more discretion when deciding which cases to actually charge federally.

* Implement policies so that certain drug offenders will not be charged with offenses that include mandatory minimum sentences. This would apply to “certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels;”

* Expand the compassionate release program by revising eligibility criteria to include “elderly inmates who did not commit violent crimes and who have served significant portions of their sentences.”

I have received numerous phone calls asking how this announcement will affect ongoing cases. Here is what I think: I don’t think this will directly change much of anything. It certainly has no retroactive application. It is not even law. It only applies to future drug prosecutions. But, what it does do is highlight a problem that, arguably, some judges are just waking up to. It gives defense attorneys a little more ammunition when arguing that the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines should not apply to their drug case. It provides a little momentum that could lead to real change in the future.