Pubdate: Fri, 24 Aug 2001
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2001 The Washington Post Company
Bookmark: (Ashcroft, John)
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Incarceration)


ATTORNEY GENERAL John Ashcroft responded to the Justice Department's 
latest figures on drug prosecutions by claiming that they prove that 
"federal law enforcement is targeted effectively at convicting major 
drug traffickers and punishing them with longer lockups in prison." 
The data the department released show almost the opposite: that the 
nation's tough drug sentencing regime is, to a great extent, being 
used to lock up comparatively low-level offenders who could easily be 
prosecuted in state courts. The data, far from affirming that the 
federal drug effort is a success, raise real questions about the 
federal government's prosecutorial priorities in the war on drugs.

The growth in federal drug prosecutions over the past two decades has 
been prodigious. Between 1984 and 1999, the number of suspects 
referred to federal prosecutors in drug matters tripled, to more than 
38,000 -- of whom 84 percent were prosecuted. Drug cases during that 
time went from 18 percent of the total federal criminal caseload to 
32 percent. According to other department data, drug convicts now 
account for 57 percent of the federal inmate population, in contrast 
to only 21 percent of the much larger state population.

This growth is not, as the attorney general suggests, largely the 
result of locking up major traffickers. In 1999 only about one-half 
of 1 percent of criminal referrals were for the most serious drug 
cases -- those involving what are known as continuing criminal 
enterprises -- and these led to only 116 actual prison sentences. 
Two-thirds of drug defendants could not afford to hire their own 
lawyers, a good indication that they were hardly high-level 
traffickers. In fact, 38 percent of all convictions involved 
quantities of drugs small enough that no mandatory minimum sentence 
could be applied, while only 3 percent resulted in mandatory minimum 
sentences of longer than 10 years in prison. In 1997 the department 
reports, 14 percent of federal drug inmates were in prison for drug 
use, and 42 percent were serving time for dealing -- either at the 
street level or above. It is simply wrong to argue that the focus of 
the federal drug effort has been kingpins. Rather, in many 
jurisdictions, federal drug investigations and prosecutions seem to 
run parallel with efforts of state prosecutors and local police 

Another striking feature of the department's data is the 
disproportionate role that marijuana seems to be playing in federal 
drug prosecution. Marijuana is hardly the most dangerous of drugs. 
Yet 31 percent of federal drug referrals involved marijuana offenses 
in 1999, more than for any other type of drug. And though these 
referrals ultimately produced shorter sentences, they were actually 
more likely to result in prosecutions than cases involving powder 
cocaine, crack cocaine or heroine. Marijuana cases all by themselves 
now account for a measurable percentage of the entire federal 
criminal caseload.

This hardly seems rational. The unique federal role in the drug war 
ought to be the prosecution of major interstate trafficking cases 
involving the most dangerous people -- and the drugs that constitute 
the greatest threat to the national health.
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