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On August 12, 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder made a bold statement that has turned the tide of drug policy in the United States:

As the so-called war on drugs” enters its fifth decade, we need to ask whether it, and the approaches that comprise it, have been truly effective – and build on the Administration’s efforts, led by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, to usher in a new approach.”

Then in a demonstration of this new approach, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a memo providing that it will not challenge the recent legalization of marijuana use for adults in Colorado or Washington. Additionally, Holder is phasing out mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug crimes, reserving public safety resources for more serious crimes.

Photo by Eneas De Troya | flickr creative commons

Is this the beginning of sensible and informed drug policy reform? In California, marijuana law enforcement has become a low priority. Data show arrests for marijuana possession plummeted by 86% in 2011 following passage of SB 1449, which reduced simple possession to an infraction. However, enforcement for drugs other than marijuana still carries problematic challenges such as extreme racial and geographical disparities.

For example, San Francisco’s 2009 data showed African Americans experienced felony drug arrest rates 19 times higher than other races in San Francisco and 7.3 times higher than African Americans elsewhere in California. However, the consequences for drug arrests also vary by county; statewide data show that a person is 11 times more likely to be incarcerated in state prison as a result of a drug felony arrest if they reside in Kings County versus San Francisco.

Additionally, while the DOJ may have declared marijuana law enforcement a low priority, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have not. A fact sheet analyzing federal detainer requests to local law enforcement shows that ICE make requests to continue detention of people arrested for marijuana possession beyond the time necessary for criminal justice purposes. This use of public safety resources is questionable in an era of fiscal scarcity and justice reform.

Yet, just yesterday, the California Assembly took an additional step towards creating a system of reasoned drug laws by passing SB 649, which provides prosecutors with flexibility to charge all simple drug possession for adult personal use as either a felony or a misdemeanor. The legislation is expected to reduce incarceration costs and provide opportunities for drug treatment and rehabilitation. It now goes to the Governor’s desk for his signature.

While all these changes are promising and will make a difference to California residents in some counties, there still is a need for a more comprehensive approach to drug policy reform. Drug law enforcement should not be predicated on where a person resides. If the U.S. is beginning a process of divestment from the War on Drugs, we must do so consistently and with a critical eye to how policies are implemented locally.

Register for the 2013 International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Denver, CO on October 23 – 26. Sept. 6 is the last day for early bird registration »

The conference will bring together experts from across the country to discuss the advancement of a comprehensive drug policy reform movement that is based in data-driven research and public health.