Today the Department of Justice named former US attorney and FBI veteran Chuck Rosenberg as the Acting DEA Chief. Because we know little about how he might respond to the national debate about legalizing marijuana, we’ll be watching for more insight. Why?
To reschedule or de-schedule marijuana as a Schedule I drug lies in the authority of the U.S. Attorney General, who in practice has delegated it to the DEA. US Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who in late April was sworn in to her new role, holds many liberal views but not when it comes to marijuana legalization. While Lynch told the Senate during her confirmation procedures that she did not support legalization, she is an advocate of criminal justice reform and is expected to continue the push toward easing sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders.
So far, the only reference to how Rosenberg is likely to respond to legalizing marijuana is based on his remarks in 2006 when as US Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, he unapologetically enforced mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine—253 prosecutions, which topped the nation at the time. His comments included, “It’s a federal crime, so I don’t apologize for prosecuting it.”
If there’s a silver lining to this, it could be that the crack cocaine sentences have been criticized as racist and AG Lynch is likely to be square in the middle of the civil rights division in the United States, an issue that resurfaces with every suspicious police activity.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “8.2 million marijuana arrests were made between 2001 and 2010 and 88% were for simply having marijuana. Nationwide, the arrest data revealed one consistent trend: significant racial bias. Despite roughly equal usage rates, blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana.”
For a while now, President Obama has spoken out about the racial disparities in criminal sentences. In April he commuted federal prison sentences for 22 drug offenders serving time for charges on cocaine, meth, heroin and marijuana. And, the President has taken his lead from national public opinion (53% of adults support the legalization of marijuana) and has been freer in talking about cannabis. It is fast becoming a mainstream topic.
History has shown that civil rights issues coupled with gradual but progressive actions by Presidents, federal courts, and Congress does move the needle of change. Of course, a new president will be elected in 2016 and we will see a completely new set of players in the Cabinet of the United States.
Until 2017, however, the United States feels on an upward swing regarding criminal disparity—and it may be what helps to legalize marijuana.
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